In Corsage, the young Louis Le Prince, the forefather of the early motion picture, instructs the Empress Elisabeth of Austria thusly: “As long as you smile, you can do anything,” before proceeding to film her. The outsized importance of keeping up appearances has never been lost on anyone, especially not a young monarch in 1877. Nearing age 40, the average life expectancy of women at the time, Elisabeth (nicknamed “Sisi”) begins to rebel against the stultifying ceremony of court life.
With wit and verve, Austrian director Marie Kreutzer correspondingly follows suit, assembling a compellingly lush film that gently seethes below the surface. She fashions painterly frames that, upon further inspection, reveal politely surreal modifications—a modern door adorns an otherwise period-specific palace, contemporary leather goods sit alongside 19th-century silhouettes. These anachronistic flourishes casually accumulate; in one scene, the orchestral melody plinked by chamber musicians reveals itself as a cover of “As Tears Go By,” and Le Prince didn’t patent his moving picture device until the following decade. Ultimately, these scenes puncture the fastidious realm of the period drama and endow Elisabeth with space to regain her autonomy. Whereas a film like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) erased temporal distinctions with amplified performances, a profane plot, and scheming as intricate as the lacework, Corsage takes a more underhanded approach. The story, so to speak, nimbly unfolds as a series of vignettes, and Krieps shelves the pageantry to embody Sisi’s interior plight with irreverent defiance. Her arch gestures and laconic movements lend this historical figure a contemporary sheen, further dislodging us from the past, underlining the rift between the Empress’s personal desires as a woman and her public duties as a symbolic figurehead.
Kreutzer’s previous films, like The Ground Beneath my Feet (2019), have similarly portrayed women bristling against societal expectations. The filmmaker had not thought to make a historical drama about one of Austria’s most well-known figures; the Empress’s likeness graces souvenir shop tchotchkes throughout the country, and she was also the subject of a 1950s film trilogy directed by Ernst Marischka, where she was famously played by Romy Schneider. Sisi depictions extend to films by Terence Young (1968’s Mayerling, starring Ava Gardner); Luchino Visconti (1973’s Ludwig, with Schneider again); and Karl Lagerfield (a seven-minute ad from 2014, featuring Cara Delevingne in sugary cosplay). The Empress, with her intricately braided coiffure and wasp waist, was something of a fashion “influencer” of her time.
Corsage, though, casts the Empress in a different melancholy light, spurning the romantic myth of royal privilege and showcasing a period of restless struggle ending with her death, reimagined in an intrepid revisionist finale. I spoke to Kreutzer about directing Vicky Krieps, the prevalence of the color purple throughout the film, and the script’s original finale.
NOTEBOOK: The line between fact and fiction is very sinuous in the film. Things I thought might have been made up—like the gymnastics bit—are actually true, and I’m sure there are scenes that didn’t really happen. How did you go about fusing the two together?
MARIE KREUTZER: Because it’s my first story based on a real person, I thought there should be truth to it—I read a lot and went to museums and had conversations with historians—then I came to the conclusion that there is no objective truth. It all depends on who wrote the biography, when it was written. Everything is an interpretation based on who’s talking about her, so then I felt free to do my own thing. Also, because she’s so famous in my country, and everybody thinks they know everything about her, I knew that whatever I did, there would be someone telling me I didn't do it right—so I should do whatever I want anyway.
The facts were more of an inspiration, and sometimes they were great to use them as they were. For example, the trip to England and her never talking to the sister again—that happened just like that, and I thought it was perfect the way it was. It felt a little like knowing the rules in order to break them again. Like having a buffet of facts that I could use, or not to use. Of course, none of us know what happened behind closed doors, so you have to make things up anyway.
NOTEBOOK: Are there any facts or scenes you wanted to keep that didn’t make it to the final cut?
KREUTZER: Not really. There was one scene shot in Belgium. It was supposed to be the Hungarian part of the film, but it didn’t fit. Sometimes things are really beautiful in the script, but then in editing you find out you just don’t need it. There were all these rumors of her having an affair with [Gyula] Andrássy, so we had a fictional scene and she jumped out of the window, but that made it into another part.
NOTEBOOK: Could you talk about your writing process? The film is not plot-centric the way period dramas are. How do you think about pacing these sort of near vignettes of her life?
KREUTZER: To be honest I don't think about structure when writing. Moreso when I'm rewriting or organizing. I just dig in and start writing. I need to be in a flow and can’t think about anything technical, like will this be interesting, or is it too short, too long. It just has to be on the page. It’s not too good if I think too much when I'm writing the first draft.
Whenever I write a script, producers and people from funding institutions would read it and say, “It’s beautifully written. But do you think people would like her?” That always happens—I could talk about this for hours—because I'm trying to write female characters [who are] as complex as the male ones we see in movies, and people aren’t used to that. The expectations are even higher when it comes to fiction, I learned. So part of the screenwriting process was to let her keep that complexity, and not always be the perfect heroine, but a real human being with different sides to her, as we all have—and at the same time making it possible for the audience to go through this with her. This really made the structure: where you think you know her, but then she changes. That’s actually what charisma is all about—people are very unpredictable—and I thought that could give the story tension. The suspense is, “What is she up to next?”
NOTEBOOK: That segues nicely to Vicky Krieps, who also has a very specific sort of charisma that also helps contemporize the film. How did you rehearse? What sort of direction did you give her?
KREUTZER: Vicky came to Vienna two months before shooting and had a really school-like schedule with fencing, and Hungarian lessons, and all of that. She came more and more into the character by learning how to move with costumes. This shaped the character more than talking, which we didn't actually do much of.
I noticed with this film that it wasn’t good for the actors to get together early on. It felt wrong having everyone sitting in sweatpants having coffee and chatting. It’s not what their characters would do. Another thing that might not be typical is we kept Vicky distant from the crew, which was new to her, too, because she’s friendly with everyone. But when she was in the costume and wig she was already so impressive, like the Empress. I tried to use that and told the crew that when she enters the room, we’re shooting. No rehearsal, no marks on the floor. We had to adapt to what she [was] doing, and that was really cool. When we were told she’s coming, everyone was like [excitedly] “She’s coming! She’s coming.” Vicky was able to move about and improvise quite freely.
I always try not to repeat takes but to give actors different ideas or subtexts for each one, so they're fresh and never know what the other person is up to. It’s something I always do, but it works especially well with Vicky because she’s so in the moment and lets go of all plans and preparations. I never think in genre; I don’t direct actors differently if it’s a comedy or a period film. The most important thing is to make the moment believable.
NOTEBOOK: In terms of making the movie believable, there are all these anachronistic touches, like the middle finger. Was that written in? Did it happen organically on set?
KREUTZER: I’m not sure anymore, I think it happened on set. Sometimes I don't even know what I wrote and what happened. The middle finger, someone told me, is actually much older, from hundreds of years ago. That’s really interesting, I should really read more about it. So sometimes it’s not as anachronistic as I thought it would be.
NOTEBOOK: What about other historical details?
KREUTZER: The music was the first thing that was modern in the script, and then there were small parts that weren’t correct in the timeline, like the filmmaker that she meets. But other things that aren’t as obvious came as we started doing production design, costume, lighting. It became more and more clear this wouldn't be a classic period film, and that we would try to find... not our own style, but to support the atmosphere we wanted to create, which was less about decoration and costumes and showing off location, and more her feeling trapped in this world.
It was really a process, a collaboration with the artistic members of the crew, but sometimes things were really spontaneous, like the mop next to the door. People were cleaning the room and it was still there and I asked if we could keep it. Whenever I came up with something, the crew would ask, “Are you sure? isn’t this too much?” I’d say, “I feel it, let's just do it.” Then someone would say, “Let’s do a take without it, to be safe.” and I said, “No, if you want to be safe, this is not the right film.”
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of production design, the Empress’s room is separated from her husband’s by this austere concrete hallway. Was that a collaboration between the set designers as well?
KREUTZER: In the original apartments in Vienna, which you can visit, there are no hallways, just apartments. But I do love that there was really a bell and he had to ring it when he wanted to see her. That’s where this came from. In this specific house that we shot it in, the apartments were just apart, but then I thought, isn't that more or less what we’re talking about here? This big space, this hallway between them. In the film all the rooms and clothes should be very functional. The corsets in the draft were originally much prettier, but then we decided they should be more like objects with a practical purpose. That’s also how the hallway works, too, existing just for a specific action. It’s a backstage area that supports the image of an empire. Behind the curtains, people are working and making it work.
And the chairs in the hallway came from whatever castle we visited, where there were always tons of golden chairs piled for events, and so I wanted to use that. In movies you can be neat and representative, but in real life things aren’t neat and beautiful.
NOTEBOOK: Did Elisabeth really smoke those violet cigarettes? The color is sort of a motif in the film. Was that a period-specific color?
KREUTZER: Not the cigarettes, but the color. It was her favorite color and we tried to use it throughout the film, which wasn't so easy because it’s hard to find props in lilac. I'm happy you noticed. It was important to always have it, but not too much. It's not a typical color. The cigarettes are from the Czech Republic or something, and they come in every color, not just purple, so we had to pick that color out of every pack.
NOTEBOOK: You take the biggest creative liberties with the final scene, which poses an alternate ending to history and Sisi’s life. Did you always know the film would conclude the way it does?
KREUTZER: Not exactly, but I knew that she would die. I don’t think I’ve told anyone this but in the first draft, she paid her own murderer. In real life she was murdered. But then I thought it was a bit cheesy and I didn’t want to reproduce the image of a man killing a woman. I wanted to give her control to direct the ending.
NOTEBOOK: That’s a very different ending. The Ground Beneath My Feet similarly explored public and private perceptions of women. What draws you to this?
KREUTZER: An Austrian critic even said to me that it’s basically the same film. I’m always so happy when someone mentions that film because it’s so important to me and didn’t have the same big reception as Corsage does. It also has to do with my personal life: my aunt was a schizophrenic and my stepsister was a consultant.
I think so much about having to function as a woman in this world and what it demands of us. Feminism brought so many good things, but made us even more busy, I think. Now we have to be successful in our jobs, stay forever young, but at the same time be mothers—good mothers—and support our husbands. The old ideas of being a woman are still there, coexisting with new ones, so that’s even more work for us.
The pressure that we’re under is something that’s important to me to talk about. Corsage is set in another time and world so it’s especially true then, but we’re all still raised by society now, not necessarily our individual parents, to please and receive love in return. That’s what makes it so different to be a woman than a man. We think about fitting in, which is of course what these two films have in common. Lola in the other film doesn't even realize it. She’s so deep in that machine that she thinks it's her own ideas.
NOTEBOOK: I read a review that said Lola isn't unlikable and that’s not actually the point. Do you have any contemporary directors or older ones that you admire in this respect, when it comes to portraying women?
KREUTZER: It’s sad because I was not conscious of the fact that there were so few stories told about women throughout film history. I studied film at a university in Vienna where there were almost only male teachers, teaching films made by men, and films that I referred to were also made by men. And I didn’t realize that when I was younger, I only realized it over the last few years now that I’m in the industry, and seeing how much harder it is for female directors to be taken seriously.
To be honest, in general I don't have specific directors I admire—it’s always films—but it’s something we need to talk about. Young filmmakers have more and more figures, but there are so few for us to admire, and to make it possible for us to imagine being directors.