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Review: In ‘Corsage,’ a real-life empress gets a new story

A winsome young woman marries into the top echelon of royalty, becomes lonely in a passionless marriage, and suffers eating disorders and depression even as she fascinates the outside world.
This image released by IFC Films shows Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth in a scene from "Corsage." (IFC Films via AP)

A winsome young woman marries into the top echelon of royalty, becomes lonely in a passionless marriage, and suffers eating disorders and depression even as she fascinates the outside world. Decades after her untimely death, they’re still making movies and TV shows about her.

P.S. Guess what? Her name isn’t Diana.

No, though the parallels are obvious, this is the 19th-century Empress Elisabeth of Austria we’re talking about, and she, too, is having a pop culture moment. Though far less known than Diana to a current generation, Elisabeth has her own Netflix series, and now she’s the focus of “Corsage,” a bold retelling of her story — or at least a radical filling-in of the blank spaces.

Written and directed by Maria Kreutzer and starring a mesmerizing Vicky Krieps, “Corsage” recalls in many ways Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” with its punk sensibility coursing through gilded royal residences (this film, too, finds room for contemporary tunes — for example, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “As Tears Go By”). But in spirit, it actually feels closer to the new “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which takes a known story (albeit fictional) and places it in a very modern prism of female empowerment and fulfillment.

At first glance, Elisabeth would seem an odd choice for such analysis. This is the same empress said to be so desperate to preserve her feminine looks that she bathed in olive oil and used facial wraps containing slices of raw veal; refused to be photographed past the age of 30 or painted after 40; exercised maniacally, weighed herself daily, ate thinly sliced oranges at dinner, and finally, insisted on having her “corsage,” which means corset, tightened to an extreme 50-centimeter waistline (under 20 inches).

And yet Krieps — who manages to be fiery and delicate, steely and heartbreakingly vulnerable all in the same beat — paints a believable portrait of an empress fighting each day to hold on to relevance, a quest made increasingly impossible by the social forces constricting her just like that corset.

This is not, in other words, the fresh-faced, Cinderella-like Elisabeth of the gauzy ’50s “Sisi” movies, portrayed by Romy Schneider. This is an Elisabeth who, condemned at dinner to sit in silence while her stuffy emperor husband (Florian Teichtmeister) leads the discussion, suddenly stands and flips off the rest of the table as she beats an early exit.

Born into Bavarian royalty, Elisabeth married Emperor Franz I in 1854 at age 16, and was assassinated in 1898 at age 60, while traveling in Switzerland. But the film spans only one year of her life.

It's the year she turns 40 — a fraught milestone for anyone, perhaps, but especially one terrified of aging. We begin in December 1877, with Elisabeth in a bathtub, trying to break her record for holding her breath, frightening her servants. Getting dressed, she admonishes a maid for not pulling the corset even tighter. (Krieps wore a tight corset throughout shooting to give her a sense of the misery Elisabeth deliberately endured.)

When her birthday arrives, the empress is not happy. At the age of 40, a person begins to fade, she tells someone — and then she proceeds to do exactly that.

She escapes, seeking romantic fulfillment on trips to England and Bavaria. Ever more restless, she wants to be anywhere besides Vienna, with those endless royal dinners. And she wants to be invisible. Increasingly she covers her face with a veil. And then, she chops off her beautiful hair — hair that had, in its braided beauty, inspired an empire.

Although her image still fills souvenir shops in Austria, little is actually known, of course, of the interior life of Elisabeth — this was not the age of tell-all interviews and celebrity profiles. Into this void director Kreutzer and her star, Krieps (who also produces) rush with their own provocative — and occasionally shocking — ideas. Like Emma Corrin’s Lady Chatterley, Krieps’ empress is a woman of deep yearning and deep intelligence, too, who flails desperately against the constraints of her time and position. (Kudos to Krieps for not only wearing that corset, which is the ultimate constraint, but also for learning to ice-swim, ride side-saddle, fence and speak Hungarian for the film.)

Unlike Corrin’s Chatterley, though, things do not end on a promising note. This is only one year in Elisabeth’s life but a crucial one — a bridge between her youth and a future she dreads. We won’t reveal the ending here, but let’s just say this is an alternative journey. The destination may be startling but, thanks to a magnetic star turn from Krieps, the voyage is never boring.

“Corsage,” an IFC Films release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 113 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press

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