For tourists visiting Austria today, the image of Empress Elisabeth might rival Mozart’s when it comes to adorning coffee mugs, chocolate boxes, and various knick-knacks. But to tell the story of Empress Elisabeth in the new film Corsage, writer-director Marie Kreutzer incisive paints a completely different portrait of the royal known as Sisi; one that corrects the false idea of the beautiful idol usually represented in an idyllic manner.
Thanks in part to a searing performance by Vicky Krieps—quiet yet explosive beneath her calm and composed facade—Corsage looks and feels nothing like the trio of the 1950s’ Sisi films starring Romy Schneider. In comparison, Krieps’ Empress is restless, bored, and even—to quote her character Alma in Phantom Thread—“looking for trouble,” on the heels of her 40th birthday. Read on for Krieps’ own understanding of Elisabeth, her research into Sisi, typical princess stories, and how emotionally and physically taxing it was to wear that tight corset on long shoot days.
The A.V. Club: I understand this movie was originally your idea. How did it begin and take off from there?
Vicky Krieps: It starts in my childhood where my mother raised me openly. I was not very familiar with the princess image as a girl. I was more glee and climbing trees. But my neighbors had all these princess movies and I was of course fascinated by the clothes and how beautiful it was. I liked it. But maybe I always had my own perspective on things because of my upbringing. Which is why when I read the biography, I was interested in her suddenly. I remember reading and thinking, “What is behind the curtain?” It felt like something was wrong.
I felt like they were making this perfect image of this very eccentric woman and how crazy she was to go on so much horseback riding, have this beautiful waves and the first fitness tools. But I was thinking, why did she do that? It felt to me as if there was something behind the facade that I could only taste that was much darker and more sad. Much later, I was working with Marie Kreutzer in Austria on a movie called We Used To Be Cool. We liked working with each other so much. So we said we have to do another movie. And I said, “We have to make a movie about Empress Elisabeth, because it seems to me there are movies out there but only about this other side of her that feels like it’s not real. And there hasn’t been any movie about the real woman. She thought it’s a very stupid idea. [Laughs] Because she grew up in Austria, with this very superficial, cliche and shallow image of her, you know? [She was] a merchandise, really. So she thought it’s not interesting as an emancipated woman to talk about a princess or something. But then two years later I received a hard copy of the script with a postcard which said, “I guess you were right, Vicky.”
AVC: It’s interesting you bring up your perspective of all the princess stories and films at a young age. I used to like them when I was a kid. But even then, I distinctly remember questioning their supposedly happy endings. “What does happily-ever-after mean? What is she going to do all day in the palace? What if she gets bored?” It was frustrating.
VK: Yeah. I think we all felt it as a girl. I think no matter your upbringing, unless you’re really super brainwashed, [we all felt] something in this society isn’t right. And [even though] we [could] feel it, we knew it, we didn’t have the [right] word [to describe it]. Especially as women, we can tell that there’s someone trying to sell us something that’s wrong around being beautiful and young. I always had this feeling, but I didn’t know what [it was]; I wasn’t old enough. But I was always very suspicious of this perfect princess imagery. And at the same time I was sad. I could feel I’m far away from this [image]. I don’t wanna be this, but I don’t know who I am. So what am I then if I’m a girl and not the princess?
AVC: That questioning comes out so beautifully in the dual performance that you’ve crafted here. There is the facade, the surface of the princess. But then there is a lot happening underneath that surface. You’re almost playing two people: restless on the inside, resilient on the outside.
It’s a little bit what I did in Phantom Thread, but this time I took it further. So it’s my modern understanding and modern sense of rebellion that I have and consciously take with me into portraying a woman of another time. But at the same time, [I was] being very respectful of everything that was. So I’m not someone who likes to just break the rule in order to break it. I respect the rule at the same time. I just allow myself to criticize it and have my own stance. So I respected everything I knew about her, everything that she was. She was not staying in that space because she was too stupid to leave it. But because at that time, that is what you understood and that is what you saw. So I tried to stay there just as much, just enough to respect her circumstances of the time, but bring in my own sense of being a woman. As an actress, I always felt a certain pressure to do the right thing, to do the right portrait, to be a good girl and be a good actress so that people [could] say, “Well done Vicky!” But I always hated that there was always something in me, like, “I don’t care. I’m not doing this so you like me, I’m, I’m doing this so we can have a conversation.”
AVC: I’m so glad you brought up Phantom Thread because I can’t help but think of Corsage in relation to it, but also in relation to Bergman Island. In all three, your characters are operating in worlds and marriages that expect a certain kind of behavior or compromise from her. But all three women refuse to play by the rules.
VK: I feel the same. All three women need to find their own way to survive in a male world and protect what they believe and find their own story. In Bergman Island, she has to find her own way of making movies so she can exist and understand that she has a different way. It’s not wrong because it’s different. It’s even more right and more intuitive. Alma [in Phantom Thread] has to understand she can be her own woman. She doesn’t have to take away from [her] love or prove that she’s stronger than him. And Sisi is the same. She finally allows herself to free herself, which is what we invented of course. Her real life was not like this unfortunately.
What I try to do is show women that we are already strong. We don’t have to become superwomen. We don’t have to become a revenge slayer, murderer or something. We don’t have to become a monster. We don’t. We are already strong. And we can maintain the life that we have by just understanding that we are already strong. We don’t become strong by proving our strength to men or winning the fight, but by finally embracing the feminine [energy]. That is the power we have.
AVC: What was it like, putting on Sisi’s clothes, especially her corset, in order to become her? How did those tight fits and bodily restrictions inform your performance?
VK: Marie and I decided early on that we would use the corset in the way they had it. We were not gonna cheat. We’re going to use the actual corset and we thought we would respect her. I didn’t want to be another person who uses her, just to have a nice role to play, to show everyone that I’m a good actress. In all the writing you find about her, it’s really hard to know who she really was. But there was [always] this corset, so we thought we will use it. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize what it meant. I think it was a mistake. But I tried to stick with what I chose and say, “It’s your own mistake, so you can also live with it now.”
What happened was that, because I was wearing it all day and not like a princess after, you know, noon. [I was starting] in the morning at 4:00am. The costume lady who was dressing me every day sometimes had bleeding fingers from the pulling of the strings. So it was not only painful for me, but for her too. We were there so early, cause we needed so long for this thing. And it was a monster we had to tame every morning. Sometimes I would cry, sometimes she would cry just seeing me suffer. And it was such a female bond we created around this putting on the corset, that it became part of my journey really. And I think it did inform me with much more than I thought, but unfortunately it also took away my feelings. So once I had it on, the only desire I had was to smoke. Not even eat, because you can’t eat in that. But just to take in something. You can’t move, you can’t breathe and you can’t feel. I don’t know how it works, but in the diaphragm it just cuts all your emotions. You kind of get the idea of the feeling, but you can’t let it out.
And this, of course, became the film and now it would be easy to say, “Oh, but that’s why it was good because now it’s in the film.” I hate this thing so much. I don’t even want to say it was good for the film, because I have such a hate for it. Women were wearing this and people were saying they are difficult and cranky and hysterical and they faint and they are weak. I mean, try and be strong with this thing. Try and be normal. Try and be happy. It’s impossible.
AVC: What other physical preparation and challenges did you take on?
VK: I had two months of going to school. I had a calendar and I wrote it by hand. It was full every day. So it started at 8:00am. I went ice swimming from there. I went to horse riding, I went to fencing. From there, I went to the Hungarian [class]. It was endless. And then I also myself went to Jane Gibson who’s a body coach. She comes from dancing. I wanted to establish a dialogue with one person that would be only about body language. Because I wanted to understand, what does that do to you if you were to be cut in half? So I developed a body language where I would walk almost like I’m not touching the ground, like I’m hovering. And then I had these courses where I had to learn about the manners of the court.
I loved it, but it was really a lot at the same time. Like, I couldn’t eat properly because of the corset. I’m not at all a masochist. I love being okay. I don’t need to feel pain to know that I’m doing something right. But in this case, I wanted to tame the beast and knew I can only do it if I try to understand [Sisi] as much as I can.
AVC: In the end of the film, through the credits, you’re thankfully in this beautiful, free-flowing robe and you are joyously dancing. That must have been a relief.
VK: [We shot that] close to the end. And I really needed it. It was a relief. It was the idea of the DP [Judith Kaufmann]. She said, “Let’s have her some time when no one sees her. What about dancing?” And I love dancing. So immediately I said yes. Then they said, “Shall we talk about it?” I said, “No, no, no, don’t talk about it.” We never talk about any of the scenes. I really mostly improvise and all we knew is, we will use one roll of film so then they can’t stop us. Because that scene was not in the script. And if you go to the production on such a tight budget and say you added a scene, they will literally kill you. [Laughs] So we were just using one roll at the end of a day that finished a bit earlier than the others.
And then I went to the makeup department before the scene. I said, “Do you have a mustache from the guys somewhere?” I took it and it was my surprise to the director and the DP, they didn’t know. But I felt it would be so right. Now it’s my favorite scene. Every time I see myself dance and put the mustache on, I feel so liberated and I feel so good and happy to share this little mischievous take with the world.