Throughout the 31st Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at The Lens will be spotlighting some of their favorite feature films on this year’s festival slate. Our critics have picked can’t-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to claim your tickets.
Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Bavaria was disillusioned with the throne even before she married Emperor Franz Joseph I — Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary — at the age of 16. Born into a longstanding German dynasty but raised without the strict standards so often associated with royal bloodlines, Elisabeth — a.k.a. Sisi — was ill-equipped to serve in the dual role of Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. She wasn’t that interested in trying, either. The hefty pressure on her shoulders brought on a plethora of ailments within weeks of her nuptials and coronation. Imagine, then, where Sisi stands nearly a quarter-century later: On the brink of 40, struggling to maintain her lofty public image in the face of what was considered, by imperial standards, to be old age.
This is where Corsage begins, in late December, 1877, just a few days before Elisabeth’s (Vicky Krieps) dreaded 40th birthday on Christmas Eve. Coincidentally, this number also corresponds to the target circumference of her waist: 40 centimeters. Achieved through the controversial practice of tight-lacing — which entails precisely what it sounds like — Elisabeth’s firm adherence to impossible beauty standards is soon undercut when Franz reduces her regal responsibilities. Knocked down from her husband’s political level to more ceremonial duties as a result of her defiant restlessness, Elisabeth’s internal battle intensifies. She spends her spring and summer months traveling Europe, fencing, horseback riding, visiting old friends and lovers... anything that might aid her desperate pursuit of a purpose beyond the confines of the throne. (Not to mention the confines of being a beau idéal.) Apparently, even royalty can be something of a curse for those who never wanted it in the first place.
At first glance, writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s follow-up to her minimalist thriller The Ground Beneath My Feet (2019) — a highlight of SLIFF 2019 — seems like a bold departure from her usual output. Previously known best for contemporary, small-scale dramas about work, relationships, and other aspects of the Way We Live Now, Corsage marks a new kind of film from Kreutzer. Nevertheless, it’s very much a distinctive work covered in the filmmaker’s fingerprints. Several elements recall themes and subject matters present in The Ground Beneath My Feet: disciplined routines, burdensome responsibilities, suffocating grief, and dramatic hair transformations. What initially feels like a deviation from Kreutzer's norm ends up fitting right in. It turns out that the inner turmoil of an Empress-Queen can be made quite modern in the right hands. Of course, it also helps to have Vicky Krieps in the lead role.
As to be expected in the years following her remarkable turn in Phantom Thread (2017), Krieps is superlative as Elisabeth. She’s exactly the anchor Corsage needs, especially for all its slyly anachronistic touches. From period-inaccurate machinery in the background to the sound of diegetic 20th-century needle drops to the sight of emergency exit signs above doorways, these are less unintentional goofs than periodic reminders of the story’s lasting pertinence. Krieps-as-Elisabeth refuses to wink, and it’s exactly what Kreutzer needs from her leading lady in order to sell an ambitious take on history such as this. While Corsage might sound like yet another entry in the ever-popular subgenre of dissident monarchs, this intentional imprecision coupled with Krieps’s striking embodiment of Sisi creates a heartfelt portrait of a woman who felt suffocated by societal pressures — and not just because of the corset, either. If ever there was a more elegant victim of circumstance, they’d be in perfect hands with Kreutzer and Krieps.
Corsage screens at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 8.