Corsage appears to have generated a fair amount of controversy – as might be expected of a film focusing on a Royal personage with strong views at this time. It has also seen a campaign aimed to bring down the film’s star Vicky Krieps (see the ‘Trivia’ columns on the film’s IMDb entry). I’m not really interested in Royals of any kind, but I am interested in how women (high or low profile) are represented in narratives. Corsage is a fictionalised narrative about one of the most famous celebrity women in 19th century Germanic history. Vicky Krieps plays ‘Sissi’, the Empress of Austria through her marriage to Franz Joseph in 1854 as a 16 year-old. Sissi is a character rather like Diana Spencer, ‘Princess Diana’ in the UK in the 1980-90s. There are numerous other films in which Sissi is a major character, but this time, in the hands of the Austrian auteur director Marie Kreutzer, she appears at the centre as a woman prepared to re-write her story with a proto-feminist underpinning. I already had a sense of Kreutzer’s position as set out in The Ground Beneath My Feet (Austria 2019), a devastating exploration of a woman working in capitalist enterprise operations.

A still from the ‘film’ footage supposedly shot by Louis Le Prince

Several reviewers/commentators have linked Corsage to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (US 2006). I did see that film on release but I have little memory of it. Looking down the impressive cast list of Coppola’s film now, I expect it was more of a comedy and a spectacle. In her film, Kreutzer plays down the ostentation of the last of the Hapsburg Emperors and their families. The film is small-scale and somehow intimate and it is all about Krieps as Sissi. Focusing on just one year, 1877, in which Sissi turned 40, Kreutzer creates a statement about how this particular woman feels and how she deals with her situation. Even if you don’t already know the story (many people have seen the other films and know the historical details) it soon becomes apparent that Kreutzer isn’t necessarily worried by the need for authentic details. I didn’t notice all the examples but I couldn’t miss the 20th century farm tractor waiting by the railway or the anachronistic diegetic songs with performances of ‘As Tears Go By’ recorded by Marianne Faithfull in 1964 and Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ (a song from 1970 subsequently covered by many other singers). I remember that Marianne Faithfull is descended from an aristocratic Austrian family, the Ritter Sacher-Masochs. I’m not sure what connections the Kristofferson song might suggest. I’ll mention just one more, the mythical meeting with Louis Le Prince who supposedly takes short moving image clips of her. Le Prince invented a form of early cinema in Leeds in 1888 over 10 years later than his appearance in Corsage.

The significance of the 40th birthday is made clear by Sissi’s explanation that 40 means a woman is old, too old to have children for instance. She seems determined to overturn this sense that at 40 she should grow old gracefully (40 was still the life expectancy of many women in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire). A little history is needed to understand what is going on in the film, even if Kreutzer creates her own story. Sissi was related to the Bavarian royal family and one of the characters in the film is her cousin King Ludwig II, a.k.a. ‘Mad King Ludwig’ who left a legacy of ostentatious buildings and artistic ventures. Sissi and Ludwig (eight years younger) spent time together. Sissi also spent time in Hungary and she has been credited as playing a role in the formation of Austria-Hungary in 1867. Franz Joseph became Emperor of a territory second in size to only Russia in a European context and third in size of population. The bringing together of these kingdoms of the former Holy Roman Empire created a powerful but extremely diverse confederation of states with different languages, religions and cultures. It would also lead eventually to the First World War via the Empire’s problems with Serbia which do feature briefly in the film.

Franz Joseph with Prince Rudolf in the foreground

Sissi had been unhappy as a teenage bride. Her first child died and two of the other three were brought up by palace staff. In the film, Sissi keeps her youngest daughter more close to her and this becomes part of her attempt to distance herself from her royal duties. She keeps away from Franz Joseph and her son Prince Rudolf who seems more willing to side with his father. Sissi is close to her ‘ladies-in-waiting’ and her maids as well as to Ludwig and the young men she flirts with. The obvious anachronisms point towards the ways in which Corsage critiques the whole process of telling the stories/histories of celebrity figures.

Sissi is weighed by her lady-in-waiting Ida (Jeanne Werner)

The film’s title is another conundrum. In the Anglophone world a ‘corsage’ is a flower or flower arrangement worn by women, usually on the chest/shoulder or wrist for formal occasions such as weddings etc. The second meaning from Old French refers to the whole upper part of a woman’s dress (in English the bodice) and from this derivation also comes ‘corset’, underwear for the upper body which in the mid-19th century was seen as required to create the slim waist and accentuate the hips and bosom. In a way the film’s title refers to both corsage and corset and the tension that exists for women who feel forced to conform for work or social reasons but also feel the need to shape their bodies for their own self-esteem. This is a complex issue but Kreutzer focuses on Sissi’s attempts to maintain her small waist and low weight and also her magnificent hair.

Sissi is not a heroine – or a victim, but she is seriously troubled by who she is. Sissi is also arguably cruel and unthinking in some of her actions and especially in relation to some of the women around her. The film’s ending is also fictitious but makes sense in terms of the focus chosen by Kreutzer. The film to a large extent depends on the performance by Vicky Krieps. It’s very good. It helps that she speaks German, French and English fluently and that she could learn Hungarian (and fencing) for the role. Sissi was renowned for her beauty and has been played by Romy Schneider (three times) and Ava Gardner (in her mid-forties). I’m not sure if Krieps is ‘beautiful’ in a conventional way, though she is undoubtedly attractive. She is also tall and slim and slightly younger than the historical character when she made the film.

Two of Sissi’s closest companions, her ladies-in-waiting, Ida and Marie (Katharina Lorenz)

All the technical credits are strong, including the cinematography in ‘Scope by Judith Kaufmann and the music by Camille. I had been concerned that this might be an ‘international’ shoot (i.e. a Hollywood shoot in Europe) but apart from a couple of English actors when Sissi travels to England, the cast and crew are German, French etc.  I enjoyed watching the film but I’m not sure what to make of it overall. It does succeed in saying something still relevant now about the life of a wealthy aristocratic woman in 19th century Central Europe and it allows us to reflect on ‘histories’ and how they are written as well as what ‘celebrity’ might mean. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a strange institution I think and I’m sure I don’t know enough about it. I’d like to find out more – and what the women of the court thought about Sissi and their status in the Empire.