SAN ANTONIO — A portrait of royal rebellion hewing closer to the ghostly mania of “Spencer” than the punk playfulness of “Marie Antoinette,” “Corsage” tracks one unstable year in the life of Austria’s Empress Elizabeth, who reigned in the late-1800s alongside her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph.
The film, from Austrian writer-director Marie Kreutzer, could broadly be categorized as a costume drama on first, intricately tailored blush. But even so, it’s a costume drama more interested in the contradictions of regal duty than regaling us with the splendor of its furnishings; a rather plainspoken film of historical empathy whose subjective framing here renders the definition of “reigned” especially fluid once we see Elisabeth shattering the decorum she’s been told to maintain by lighting one up with a wounded soldier.
“You embarrassed me,” says Elisabeth’s young daughter after that scene, a most piercing response to her mother's latest insurgency. Dynamics have been inverted so sharply that the empress’s kids are lecturing her when she “acts up," which here means letting the mask of utmost propriety slip ever so slightly. As Elisabeth, the typically magnificent Vicky Krieps imbues that slippage with its own complexity and even tragedy—such a strong driving force is her performance that any external drama in “Corsage” can sometimes feel weightless by comparison.
The film opens with Elisabeth turning 40, and the suggestion that she's had more than her fill of sovereign responsibility, at least when it comes to maintaining a public image. She still welcomes the life’s more luxurious perks, if passively and if only because it’s all she’s ever come to know. But in the knotty attempts to reclaim her individuality in a political arena paradoxically built to subdue it, Krieps’s Elisabeth becomes the latest undeniably modern avatar through which to observe how power breathlessly constricts even those who ostensibly wield it.
This isn’t to say that “Corsage” makes for such a dreary watch (though it is sleepy in some stretches). As funereal as the film’s tone may be, Krieps graces it with a dynamism that helps reveal “Corsage” as a character study—and it does nothing if not incentivize us to closely study this character, right down to the ways she toys with her husband and bails on a prolonged introduction by pretending to faint.
Here Krieps is asked to be many things: subdued and sensual; controlled and intimidating; beside herself and self-affirming. The Luxembourg-born actress has an uncanny look that makes her convincing with a crown on her head or a plow in her hand, a duality that serves her well while the film aesthetically strives to match the discordance of its protagonist; the camera (manned by cinematographer Judith Kaufmann) alternates between stately and skittery, and the sublime color palette often seems like it’s daring to see how pastel-like it can go before turning as sickly as Elisabeth’s exploits are precarious.
Beyond its star performance, “Corsage” hinges on how Elisabeth is content to play with the limits of her high-status position, even to gamble with it when stirring up relationships with old flames in lower places. But so adept is Krieps at slipping between modes in an instant – at turning up the corners of her mouth into a smile with a million implications – that even this defining characteristic continues to find new dimensions throughout the movie’s two hours. The actress’s centrality turns would-be bugs into features. That individual scenes never seem to last as long as they should echoes an imagination always looking for the escape hatch, for instance. And if the continual shaping of one overarching idea makes you wonder about the perspective of those in her employ – who count the seconds while Elisabeth holds her breath underwater and rush to preserve what’s left when psychological standoffs have turned physical – it’s because Krieps takes care for her character to be interrogated as much as empathized with.
“No matter if bronchitis or headache, you are the empress,” Franz tells Elisabeth, blurring the line between reminder and rebuke. It’s enough to make you wish Elisabeth would’ve cut herself away once and for all, a fantasy Kreutzer retroactively fashions in the part of her movie that strays the furthest from history books. There’s only so much the text of those pages can empirically tell us, “Corsage” manages to say—this statement, too, serves as both reminder and rebuke.
"Corsage" is not rated. Opens in some theaters Friday, and coming soon to San Antonio Jan. 6. Runtime: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Colin Morgan, Ivana Urban, Alma Hasun
Written and directed by Marie Kreutzer