If there’s one central sensory experience that Corsage is built around, it’s the crushing breathlessness of being trapped. From the lung- and stomach-crushingly tight corsets that confine its heroine, Austria-Hungary’s Empress Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps), to rooms that seem to shrink around their inhabitants, there’s very little room for escape in Marie Kreutzer’s regal biopic. It’s a stuffiness that draws you into the physical realities of Elisabeth’s world, but is also one that, eventually, leads to just a little bit of boredom as we traipse endlessly around a series of European stately homes.
We follow a couple of, mostly fictionalised, years in Elisabeth’s life, running from the late 1870s to the early 1880s, as she deals with an intense boredom and dissatisfaction at her royal life. It’s not an easy plight to empathise with – particularly as writer-director Marie Kreutzer doesn’t couch it in big laughs, a la The Favourite – but the shrewd studies of Elisabeth’s mental health issues do help it land with a modern, non-monarchist audience. Her depression is clear to us, but goes dismissed by almost all the powerful men she meets, from her husband the Emperor (Florian Teichtmeister) to her doctor and even sometimes her more sympathetic son Rudolf (Aaron Friesz).
Tying it all together is a very impressive star turn from Krieps, by turns regal and childish and jumping between four languages (German, Hungarian, English, and French) all without missing a beat. It’s a remarkable achievement in its own right and also feels perfectly of a piece with the over-educated and under-stimulated 19th Century aristocracy – it’s a world into which Krieps fits entirely naturally. It can be pretty hard to care about all of Elisabeth’s various travails (the film plays out as a sort of collection of vignettes, culminating in a pretty lacklustre ending) but Krieps is never less than utterly convincing.
Kreutzer’s visuals are also superb, her recreation of the crumbling dynasties of central Europe balancing lived-in authenticity with some more impressionistic touches – the approach to Elisabeth’s living quarters has the feel of an ancient asylum, while anachronistic music fills the rooms. All the costumes, hair, and make-up are absolute treats, while some shots, particularly a night swim in Bavaria, capture something otherworldly in them. Elisabeth’s world was one on the cusp of staggering social and technological change, and this strange sense of fear and anticipation finds its way in to a lot of Kreutzer’s stylistic choices.
It’s just a shame, then, that Corsage does eventually get a bit dull. Elisabeth, or at least this version of her, found her life boring and repetitive, and in telling us that so emphatically, Kreutzer inevitably consigns us to some of the same fate. The jokes, when they arrive, don’t hit very hard – with the fun exception of Elisabeth’s terminally serious young daughter, diligently preparing for her courtly future – and so it’s easy to lose patience with a film about, essentially, one of the richest people in the world complaining for almost two hours. That it manages to stay as diverting as it does, though, is great testament to both Vicky Krieps and some of the best costumes and hairstyles you’ll see on screen all year.