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Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
Stars: Vicky Krieps, Colin Morgan, Ivana Urban
Writer/Director: Marie Kreutzer
Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival
In the opening moments of Corsage, a sort-of screen biography of Austria’s Empress Elisabeth, who lived and died in the second half of the 19th century, the central character regally ascends a staircase in her Vienna palace. The costuming is lush, the carriage outside doubtlessly authentic to the last detail.
But there’s something amiss: The palace’s large double wooden doors are enclosed in a decidedly 21st century glass frame — storm doors meant to keep the Austrian elements from pushing through that portal. And just before she glides out of the shot, Elisabeth (Phantom Thread’s Vicki Krieps) glances directly at us, a smug little smile on her face, as if to say, “No, that’s not a continuity glitch. This is going to be more than your garden variety period film biography.”
And indeed, while hanging its curious narrative atop the skeleton of Empress Elisabeth’s life, writer/director Marie Kreutzer takes so many outrageous liberties — most of them telegraphed — that Corsage’s label as a biography serves largely as a category under which to file it for its ultimate Netflix/Prime releases.
We meet Elisabeth as a prototypical feminist—chafing against society’s assumption that as she turns 40 she is now hopelessly past her prime. Despite the fact that she swings from exercise rings like an Olympian, rides horses like a warrior, and fences like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., to those around her Elisabeth may as well take up knitting and laying flowers at monuments. It’s a confining and insulting existence — but, Kreutzer hastens to remind us, not necessarily a purely 19th century artifact.
That’s why Kreutzer peppers her film with anachronisms, large and small: Incandescent table and floor lamps illuminate all the palace rooms — decades before the light bulb was introduced. A Rubbermaid mop wringer, probably bought at Home Depot, sits in a hallway. Palace entertainers sing Kris Kristofferson tunes.
At times the ploy becomes distracting as, in each masterfully framed shot, the viewer’s eyes start ignoring the actors and instead seek out the item that doesn’t belong in the background.
And that’s too bad, because Corsage is populated by a supremely talented cast led by Krieps, whose courageous performance as Elisabeth — barking at attendants who fail to sufficiently tighten her corset; drawing on her cigarettes like a condemned prisoner before the firing squad — implies a caged cougar just waiting for the attendant to leave her cage unlocked. Said zookeeper would in this case be Elisabeth’s distant, distracted hubby, Emperor Franz Joseph, played with sighing disapproval by Florian Teichtmeister, who for some reason reminds me of Matt Lauer, and not in a flattering way.
Still, there are moments when Kreutzer’s chronological conceit infuses the film with undeniable power: In a stuffy 19th century doctor’s office, listening to a bearded male figure pompously intone the medical treatments she will endure — whether she likes it or not — Elisabeth is seated in a modern-day, ergonomic office chair.
It’s a startling reminder that while the centuries roll, some things don’t change nearly as quickly as we’d like them to.
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