Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 19, 2022 10:40 am 
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A love-it-or-hate-it radicalized portrait of the Empress of Austria

Corsage, whose title refers to corsets not flowers, is a radicalized portrait - it is full of intentional anachronisms from language to dress to diegetic introductions of recent pop songs - of the empress of Austria-Hungary and is played, stunningly, by the actress Vicky Krieps. It's a mixed bag, beautiful, impressively staged, intentionally off-putting. It will be remembered, by some with distaste, by others with admiration. It has been a festival darling (opening in Un Certain Regard at Cannes), much awarded. If you pay close attention, whether or not you know the history it plays with rather freely, you're likely to come away confused. It's above all to be watched for the full-bore mise-en-scène and for a major performance by the chilly, striking Luxembourgish-German multilingual actress. She gets to speak German, French, English, and Hungarian, to strike a hundred poses and wear a hundred beautiful costumes. The film belongs to her. To say this character is a crazy prima donna is an understatement.

The place and time are Vienna in 1877, Elisabeth is becoming 40 at Christmas and it's a turning point. She's not the young royal star and influencer she has been since her fabled marriage-for-love with Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister). Somebody points out women in the kingdom mostly die at this age. Interesting point: she's afraid of having children now and rules out sex with Franz Joseph: in one scene they start to make out and then masturbate together. But Elizabeth is massively energetic, as well as antsy and dissatisfied.

There is not much plot, or effort to give the film one by the filmmakers. Cutting off all her hair looms large. There is a rapid, almost whiplash-inducing succession of quick tableaux as the empress indulges a Spencer-like series of diet torments, riding exploits (including a fall that to her devastation leads to the death of her beloved horse), affair (flirtatious or outright sexual we don't know-Kreutzer is stingy with sensuous details) with her British riding instructor, Bay Middleton (Colin Morgan). The opening scene shows her holding her breath under water in a tureen-like metal bath while maids time her. She also lingers in very hot water and she has a penchant for visiting insane asylums (it's hinted she feels kinship with the lunatics, and she lies down to smoke a long pink cigarette with an attractive young one). A new cure for madness is hot baths, and we see a whole row of tubs on one asylum visit.

It's impossible to list all the activities we see Elizabeth briefly engaged, or indulged, in. She is most characteristically seen as a walk-out of state dinners or other affairs, a no-show at events; for her life, for her imperial responsibilities. Even as she is, we assume, still a rock star to her subjects, she turns away. Early on she says to her sister, her major confidante, "Let's go on a trip," when she has to be reminded Christmas is coming (and her birthday the 24th). She has children, a little girl and a grown-up boy. Both are disapproving of her antics: the little girl tells her she is the child. And this feels true. She is constantly wearing violet, passing out violet candies to inmates, smoking cigarettes with a flourish, being strapped into those titular corsets, never tight enough for her.

Corsage is very sure of itself. The enjoyable, hugely admiring Variety review of it by Jessica Kiang makes clear how its obstreperous defiance of norms (much like its subjects') defiantly, perhaps satisfyingly, sets it apart from the schmaltzy, popular celebrity portraits starring Romy Schneider and the new six-part Netflix series ("The Empress") that started this September. But this arbitrariness in flipping the historical rules it has followed so meticulously at times becomes unsteadying. One has to revel in the nutty ego games of the protagonist for their own sake to enjoy the film. But that is offset a bit, wouldn't you say, by the fact that this is a well-known historical figure at a much-documented time? This is a much more elaborate recreation of place and time than Larraín's Spencer, making its fantasy element harder to sink into.

One can praise the cinematography of Judith Kaufmann. Not so sure about the editing of Ulrike Kofler or the score of "Camille." Much else that's wonderful in the projection gets lost in the ego-shuffle. Even the Vienna Boys Choir is included. They sing as angelically as ever.

Corsage, 113 mins., debuted in Un Certain Regard at Cannes May 2022 (with the best performance award). It was included in dozens of other international festivals, including London, Toronto, and New York. Metacritic rating: 82%.

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