Costume dramas are far from rare, and because of that, there is a want from production companies to justify new costume dramas by taking a tried and true concept and twisting it on its head. This was made perhaps most extravagantly clear in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, a very fictional retelling of the reign of the doomed French monarch at the start of the French Revolution. Imbued with cotton candy visuals and a soundtrack anachronistically set to 1980s pop-punk and new wave artists, Coppola’s vision of the extravagant life of Marie Antoinette was one of a very inaccurate, but infinitely more fun, dive into the opulence that soon sent the destitute French public against her. What it lacks in historical accuracy, it explains through its meticulously lavish production.
Shifting the setting roughly 600 miles eastward, Marie Kreutzer’s German-language Corsage, depicting the middle-aged years of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, quickly makes it known that Kreutzer is assembling a film incredibly different in tone, but similar in execution, eschewing historical accuracy in favor of storytelling that further benefits the audience’s interpretations of the complicated mental state Elisabeth was in. It feels like a hybrid between the two approaches to historical drama, and its effect, while muted in comparison to a more bombastic approach as noted above, is one I have been unable to shake.
Set at the end of 1877, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) is struggling with maintaining a stable relationship with her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (Florian Teichtmeister), her children, and her constituents on the eve of her 40th birthday. Increasingly challenged by others’ opinions of her as she crosses the threshold into what she considers old age, her actions and behavior become increasingly volatile as she struggles to find meaning and adoration in a world she feels has lost interest in her.
Corsage is not always quite as bold or audacious as its raucous poster might imply it to be, but it’s no spring chicken, either. It’s a film that is hilariously over-the-top for those familiar with the life of Elisabeth of Austria, but one that feels much more self-serious when unaware. As I researched the life and reign of Elisabeth, I found myself appreciating the film’s bold, but not unrealistic, deviances from history, giving a woman stripped of agency the power to be a fearless feminist figure, unafraid of her actions within the grand scheme of her reign. These actions might not seem radical by today’s standards, but Elisabeth was shaking the system up in a way not seen by an Austrian royal before. It finds a radical nature in its sometimes quiet, slight acts of defiance that snowball.
And at the center of this all is the immovable bulldozer that is Vicky Krieps. Krieps, known for her breakout English-language role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, was far from a debut actress at the time, making her rounds in the German-language (and occasionally French-language) film and television spheres (for reference, Krieps speaks a total of four languages in Corsage alone), returns to her roots and shows audiences that she is a true veteran of the craft, and perhaps one of the more versatile actresses of her generation. There’re strands of Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette, Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana, and a touch of Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, all tied together into a package that, despite this, feels entirely Krieps’s own. Not quite as crazy, or defiantly psychotic, but steadfast, bold, and completely steamrolling.
Visually, Corsage doesn’t pull any punches. This is the part of the film that plays like a typical European costume drama, and I find no fault in that. This is the part of the film that simply lets the gorgeous production and costume design shine in their own right, and while not flashy in the way many films of the like try to turn historical dramas into modern couture fashion shows, it keeps Corsage’s world rooted in reality as the remainder of the film devolves into libertine chaos which really works in Kreutzer’s favor here.
Perfectly capping the film off is a wondrously moody score from French singer Camille, who provides a wonderful underpinning of sad girl indie pop to the film’s proceedings, one that gives Corsage that final little modern kick that justifies the means. What begins as a possibly conventional take on an unconventional woman is soon revealed to have a lot more up its sleeve from its first needle drop (all original music, however, which is atmospheric and not overused).
Corsage doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s taking the wheel and making subtle improvements to it that make using the wheel stronger, easier, and less obtrusive to your life. The wheel is fine, and Kreutzer is well-aware that there are others who can take the time to reinvent it while she’s perfectly fine creating a very well-tuned, very smooth, and very reliant version. Vicky Krieps, the driver of this vehicle with said wheels on it, takes the vehicle and runs it with a racecar like precision; she’s not breaking any race records, but she still comes in first. Corsage is absolutely not a film about racing, but the efficiency and effectiveness of its formula turn it into a truly prize race car.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
Screened during Film Fest 919 2022.
In theaters December 23rd, 2022.
Available on VOD February 7th, 2023.
For more information, head to IFC Films’s Corsage webpage.