Marie Kreutzer’s “Corsage” is a fanciful art-house study of a royal, valued for her beauty and style, who realizes that she needs to escape from her unfaithful husband and her rigidly ritualized existence. It’s tempting, then, to call it “Spencer” for Grown-Ups.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria, played by Vicky Krieps, may not have the mainstream appeal of Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana, and there is no equivalent of “The Crown” to get audiences up to speed on 19th century Austro-Hungarian politics.
But the films have a lot in common, and “Corsage,” which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, deserves at least as many plaudits. It’s certainly the more intelligent. haunting and waspishly funny of the two films.
Like “Spencer,” “Corsage” stops before some of the most dramatic, scandalous, and indeed cinematic incidents in its subject’s life (her assassination, for one thing), concentrating instead on a short interval in which the constrictions she is under really start to chafe. And in this case, the chafing is literal. The “corsage” of the title doesn’t refer to a clump of flowers on a prom dress, but the corsetry that squeezes Elisabeth’s rib cage ever more tightly; you’d think Krieps would have had enough of haute couture after “Phantom Thread.”
The less literal squeezing results from her gossipy subjects complaining that they don’t see enough of her around Vienna, and her hapless husband Emperor Franz Joseph (a hangdog Florian Teichtmeister) grumbling that she isn’t taking her duties to him or the empire seriously enough. Worse still, she has turned 40, a dangerous age for a fashion icon. When her subjects sing her a birthday song, the refrain has a threatening air: “Long may she live, beautiful may she remain.” Should she struggle to remain beautiful, or rebel against the very concept?
Subject matter aside, there are also stylistic resemblances to “Spencer.” “Corsage” isn’t quite as hallucinatory as Pablo Larrain’s Diana fantasy, with its zany guest appearances by Anne Boleyn’s ghost, but it puts other dream-like twists on the country-house costume drama. Whenever the film seems to be settling into an atmospheric but conventionally good-looking period piece, Kreutzer (“Gruber Is Leaving,” “The Ground Beneath My Feet”) throws in an amusing and jarring reminder of the modern world, as if Elisabeth were breaking out of her allotted role by time-traveling, momentarily, to the present day.
There are slow-motion sequences set to terrific gothic ballads by Camille Dalmais, and a diegetic rendition of Jagger and Richards’ “As Tears Go By,” accompanied on the harp. (The film would make a fabulous triple bill with “Spencer” and Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.”) Kreutzer also leaves some of the castles and palaces in the crumbling, paint-flaking state in which she found them (possibly for budgetary reasons as well as artistic ones), and includes various anachronistic objects, from telephones to tractors. Scholars may also question whether anyone actually gave anyone else the finger in late-19th-century Austria, but it’s bracing when it happens in “Corsage”.
For all of its pathos, feminist outrage and roguish postmodern wit, “Corsage” isn’t what you’d call a mainstream crowd-pleaser. Rather than having a propulsive plot, it follows Elisabeth as she takes carriages from stately home to stately home, visiting relatives and trying to find some worthwhile occupation, whether it is fencing, swimming or flirting with a riding instructor (Colin Morgan, “Belfast”) in England.
There are regular captions to establish the time and place of the action, but while that device is usually used in films in which that action is spread across many years and many locations, in “Corsage” the dateline is almost always 1878 and the place is often Austria. However much she travels, Elisabeth can’t seem to get anywhere.
Whether or not the viewer will care may depend on how much patience they have with aristocratic ennui. By any standards, the Empress has a life of extraordinary privilege and little responsibility: her young daughter and grown-up son are people to be seen every now and then, before they are whisked away by the staff. She is also capable of self-absorbed cruelty, such as when she refuses to let her handmaid marry the one man who offers her security.
But Elisabeth’s entitlement is offset by her energy, mischief-making, and attempts at kindness, however unwittingly patronizing they may be. She makes regular visits to an asylum, for instance, handing out gift-wrapped candy and recommending that the patients take therapeutic baths. These scenes recall the news reports, just over a century later, of Princess Diana visiting hospital patients with HIV — a radical gesture at the time.
Ultimately, “Corsage” is a deeply sympathetic portrait of Elisabeth, enhanced by Krieps’ delightful performance. Elisabeth is reserved in public, showing only flickers of the strain that this reserve requires, but she is cheeky and capricious when she is with friends, and weighed down by melancholy when she is on her own. However wealthy she may be, Kreutzer’s exquisitely composed love letter ensures that everyone can relate to the Empress. After all, on one level it’s a film about the horror of living in Vienna and not being allowed to eat any of its pastries.
“Corsage” made its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.