Corsage: The BRWC Review
Corsage: The BRWC Review. By Joe Muldoon.
Few period dramas are as fiercely feminist as Austrian director Marie Kreutzer’s latest work, Corsage, the most recent biopic of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. A semi-fictional account of a single year of her life, spanning from 1877 to 1878, the life of Elisabeth (or Sissi) is shown to be one fraught with hardship. Hardly does a moment, or fresh interaction with another person, pass without a comment being made about her appearance; the opening credits have barely vacated the screen before we see Elisabeth’s waist being measured, and a comment is soon made about how the outrageously (and cruelly) gossipy papers have recently discussed her weight. Elisabeth looks on, clearly unsurprised or new to such attention.
The viciousness laced throughout the comments directed towards Elisabeth is always hidden behind an ersatz smile, a facade of politeness. Unsurprisingly, she much prefers life in Hungary, a place where she can escape the nastiness of Austrian court life. Trapped in the aristocratic bell jar of imperial elite life, Elisabeth’s moments of happiness are few and far between; she has an emotionally absent husband, faces tedious public engagements, and often finds herself shrouded by loneliness, even when in the company of others. A keen equestrian (and, according to historical record, one of the most famous and accomplished of her time), one of her main joys is riding, and at times, it feels like her joy is felt more amongst animals than humans.
With the film beginning around the time of her 40th birthday (on 24th December 1877), we notice the shift in treatment towards Elisabeth, and in a voiceover she narrates that “at the age of 40 a person begins to disperse and fade, darkening like a cloud”. Her birthday is treated as the death knell of her life, as if her usefulness and worth is spent, no longer being fertile or (apparently) beautiful. Beauty has no expiry date, despite any societal claims to the contrary, and Kreutzer makes sure to communicate this.
By no means is Elisabeth portrayed with uncritical doting sympathy, as her flaws are on show, and she is at times waspish and spiteful, as seen upon her refusal to allow her handmaid to marry – then again, most of us would fail to always act with kindness if subjected to the banalities and unpleasantness of court life. Her personality shines through the greatest upon her visits to mental asylum wards, putting effort into engaging with the patients, whereupon she bestows them with gifts of candied treats. Perhaps she finds a warped kinship with those she visits, with many of them being prisoners of their own minds, and her being the prisoner of others’ minds. Her genuine care for the mentally ill is a well-known historical fact, with Elisabeth being quoted as having said, “a fully equipped lunatic asylum would please me most”, after having been asked for gift ideas by her husband.
Corsage is a poignant and scathing critique of the treatment of women, both in the past and in the present, where the parallels sadly show that very little has changed. The film highlights the panopticonic nature of the treatment of high-profile women, often reduced to mere appearances. Corsage is a biopic in the same way of Sofia Coppola’s stunning Marie Antoinette; the substantial historical facts are there, but its purpose is not to be a painstakingly accurate historical account, rather an opportunity to humanise a real person – something of which Elisabeth sadly seems largely to have been robbed during the time depicted in the film.
When she cuts off long locks of her famed hair in an act of rebellion, her handmaid screeches in dismay and desperately gathers the fallen hair so she can have a wig made from it, crying that her life’s work has been ruined; Elisabeth isn’t a human to those around her, but a project. The film’s treatment of the Empress is respectful, deliberately discarding any insalubrious scandals, and instead concentrating its efforts into giving us a glimpse into a brief and painful window of time in her life. It feels appropriate that the film’s most prominent poster is of Elisabeth holding up her middle finger, both towards the audience, and towards those whose venomous words plagued her days.
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