By Lawrence Garcia
If Albert Serra’s La mort de Louis XIV (2016) may be taken as dramatizing Ernst Kantorowicz’s theory of the king’s two bodies—the concept that a king may be understood as having both a body natural and a body politic—Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, starring Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth of Austria (a.k.a. “Sisi”), may be seen as exploring a parallel dynamic. Its title refers not just to the empress’ famously tight-laced bodice and the physical strain required to wear and maintain it, but also to the largely decorative function of her role, which was both restrictive and, as Kreutzer’s script shows us, profoundly boring. Sisi’s husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I (Florian Teichtmeister), might be a victim of circumstance as well, but he at least has the powerful distractions of ruling.
Krieps, who won the Un Certain Regard award for best performance at Cannes, portrays her disaffected royal with an ironic detachment—almost as if the Empress Sisi were, in momentary flashes, able to view herself from a decidedly contemporary perspective, able to survey her own symbolic role and objectification. Kreutzer, for her part, matches Krieps’ performance with anachronistic flourishes of her own, including diegetic renditions of contemporary songs (e.g., Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By”) and going so far as to rewrite the end of Sisi’s real-life story. Rather than depict the empress’ 1898 assassination by an Italian anarchist, Corsage shows her setting out to sea and finally taking her life into her own hands. This overt revisionism is a clear rebuke to period pieces that lay claim to a kind of transhistorical objectivity, as if our conceptions of the past were not themselves contingent, subject to history. What is less clear is that in embracing this increasingly familiar perspective of knowing irony—which lands somewhere between Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) and Jessica Hausner’s Amour fou (2015)—Kreutzer has not simply traded one representational cliché for another.