Review: ‘Corsage,’ A Woman Out of Time

Directed by Marie Kreutzer, the drama stars Vicky Krieps in a magnetic  performance as an Empress who suffers an epic mid-life crisis when she turns 40. 

Tighter! Make it tighter

Born at the wrong time in history for independent women, Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps) finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to a very busy man who has no time for her. Granted, she lives in a luxurious palace, and her husband is Fritz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister), the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary

It’s Christmas, 1877 in a fictional account of the Empress’ life, written and directed by Marie Kreutzer (The Ground Beneath My Feet, 2019). History informs us that Elisabeth married FJ, as she refers to him privately to her royal court, when she was just 16. She grew up into a woman who yearned to be free of all the restrictions placed upon her by her station in life, reaching what we would call today a mid-life crisis as she turns 40. 

As her physician reminds her, the life expectancy for her female subjects is just 40, suggesting without saying so that maybe she should just shut up and enjoy the pheasant. Elisabeth cannot do that. She recognizes her duties, and performs them to the best of her abilities, without ever enjoying what she is expected to do. 

Lacking intimacy with her husband, she likewise realizes sadly that her children, teenage Crown Prince Rudolf (Aaron Friesz) and young Princess Marie (Eva Spreitzhofer), are more inclined to follow their father in his obedience to the grand order of things among the royal family, leaving Elisabeth to seek occasional comfort from various friends and relatives as she kicks against the goads of her unhappy existence. 

Stately, rather than lively, Corsage depicts Elisabeth’s growing discomfort as she continually insists that her corsets be tied tighter and tighter — a real-life historical tidbit — reflecting how she felt increasingly suffocated from the rigid requirements of her royal role. Writer/director Marie Kreutzer is less interested in the facts of Elisabeth’s life and/or the year that is dramatized in the film, and much more concerned with the emotional truths that speak to what Elisabeth was likely dealing with at the time. 

Absolutely emphathetic as she continues to struggle against the slow strangulation of her life, Vicky Krieps shows the full emotional weight carried by Empress Elisabeth, all without resorting to outward shows of fire or fury or frustration. It’s all quietly done, and patently obvious, to anyone observing who cares to sympathize with her situation. 

In that, Elisabeth is not completely alone; the problem is, the few who truly care for her and about her have even less power than she does to change and/or improve things that really mattered.  That leaves Elisbeth alone in a deeply mournful atmosphere that feels like a tragic film noir, only without a crime committed. 

Except for the crime of being born at the wrong time. Poor Elisabeth. 

The film opens at AMC Parks @ Arlington 18, Angelika Film Center and Cafe, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, on Friday, January 6, via IFC Films. For more information, visit the official site.