The first draft for this review was cheeky and short: “Vicky Krieps. That’s it. That’s the review.” And while the presence of the Phantom Thread star alone should be enough to entice you to watch writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s sumptuous drama Corsage (in select theaters December 23), there are plenty of delights to be found in this fictional retelling of a year in the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Then again, to reduce the film’s tender yet exacting visuals as well its modern aural riffs to “delights” is to deny the way Corsage is a masterful and melancholy meditation on loneliness with a sucker punch of an ending.
As a title, “corsage” is a thematically rich concept. Bodices and corsets are in themselves figural embodiments of the constrained lives that those who wore them often led. Yet the corset was also necessarily tied to vanity, to women’s autonomy, and even to their agency; as we’re shown several times throughout Corsage, Empress Elisabeth required various ladies in waiting to help her into that waist-cinching apparel. Yet rather than merely posit how such trappings were fashion (and fashionable) prisons for women like Empress Elisabeth, Kreutzer’s project also explores the privilege and power afforded by such garments.
Corsage opens with Empress Elisabeth entering her fortieth year. Adrift in her husband’s world and wallowing in the grief of a lost child, the Queen of Hungary herself is prone to bouts of melancholy. It’s not just that her royal duties bore her, though they do; it’s why she’s mastered the act of fainting on the spot to get out of public appearances. Or that she’s mournful about the way her marriage is now utterly devoid of sexual intimacy; the emperor, it turns out, has found apt ways to cope. It’s that she continually stares out into the world around her and she finds little that comforts her. There’s horseback riding, yes. And shameless flirting. And the occasional visit to wounded soldiers. But overall, she’s dissatisfied with what’s become of her.
Kreutzer centers all of this on the Empress’ body. Her birthday—not to mention her depression—has left the Empress all the more open to scrutiny, with her weight and her body constantly being talked about. Her body is constantly at the mercy of a public and a populace who see her with little else but contempt. She knows her weight is carefully being observed, that her public appearances are ready-made instances to examine just how unengaged with the world she remains.
As Krieps allows us to see, though, the Empress’ sullen expression—that dazed and glazed look that seems so self-revealing—offers but a glimpse into her existential crisis. There’s depth to what looks like insipid vanity, layers to what appear to be simple requests. The Empress’ inner world is awash with insights into her own slowly self-effacing impulses. “Nobody loves nobody,” she notes at one point. “Everybody loves what he wants from others. And we love anybody who loves in us that which we would like to be.” There’s a nihilism to the Empress’ actions and multi-lingual words. She may be a cipher to those around her (“She’s like a book to me,” one of her attendants writes, “A riddle on each page.”) but, the more time we spend with her, the more we realize that she’s more self-assured and self-reflective than most. She both blooms and withers in equal measure, making us wonder if one can truly occur without the other.
As we follow the Empress’ fortieth year (which includes, we must say here without spoiler worries, an instance wherein she throws herself out a window), it’s clear Kreutzer is using this most cryptic of historical figures to imagine what coy, forced smiles in official portraits can tell us about a woman’s seemingly listless life. Rather than solely make the Empress a spoiled royal alienated from her country, her roots, her people—her daughter and son, even!—Kreutzer finds moments where her protagonist shamelessly indulges in her own desires and thus finds some solace amid so much restlessness.
Capturing such depth in a character one may otherwise describe as vapid is no easy feat. And here’s where Krieps comes in. The Luxembourgish actress, who’s long been able to embody an alluring sense of ambiguity—hers is a face that reveals and obscures in equal measure—finds in the Empress a most formidable match. Even as the Empress cooks up new ways of hiding and evading eyes both public and private, Krieps instead opens up her face to reveal ever more about what haunts Kreutzer’s leading lady, letting her become a model for a new kind of woman in what is ostensibly a dying world.
Such an approach necessarily makes Corsage brim with 21st-century feminist ideas (and ideals). In this, Kreutzer’s choice to recruit Camille to build out a modern, “sad girl” musical score to accompany the Empress’ melancholia feels less like an obvious attempt to give the film a contemporary air and more like a decision that stresses the timelessness of her experience. We may well be squarely situated in various European royal halls, but Krieps’ protagonist feels out of time, her sardonic, dry wit a balm against the staid world she’s forced to live within. By the time Kreutzer guides us to the film’s climactic conclusion (which really underscores the way the filmmaker has embraced the license inherent in any “fictional” retelling of history), Corsage establishes itself as one of 2022’s most ravishing cinematic experiences, a treatise on boredom that’s as electric as it is energizing.