I didn’t know much about Austrian royalty when I watched actress Vicky Krieps play a year in the life of Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. The year is 1877 and the queen has turned 40, the age “a person begins to disperse and fade,” as her voice narrates in the film.
Corsage, the movie’s title, means corset in German. And in an opening scene (and many scenes that follow) Elisabeth’s ladies in waiting cinch the strings of her corset to an acceptable waistline. The act itself takes many attempts to achieve a measurement that is then written into a daily log.
Elisabeth is a celebrity like British royalty is today. The press report on every detail of her physical beauty, clothing, and appearance. At age 40, she is twenty-four years into her reign as wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I, whom she married at 16. Elisabeth has progressed in the public eye from maiden to mother and has maintained her beauty, which she internalizes as the value of her existence. But the pressure of growing into the next phase of her life, a mature queen, causes Elisabeth to rebel.
The more things change. . .
Corsage tells a story about what it feels like for a woman to become an age that society no longer appreciates, and it’s timeless.
Her nineteenth-century waistline gets pulled tighter.
Our twenty-first century faces get pulled tighter.
The press and the people around her begin to watch for and comment on changes in her appearance. Who is she if the world stops reflecting her beauty back to her? She barely eats, as shown by the slivers of oranges and bowls of beef broth she consumes while others dine on elaborate meals. She exercises rigorously.
Until she doesn’t. Elisabeth devises a scheme for her escape from the confines of public expectations and projections and one can’t help but breathe more deeply when she cuts her long hair and eats bowls of cream. When she enjoys her body and lovemaking with her husband without perpetual fear of pregnancy. When she gives up her corseted existence and relaxes into the sensory experience of living, turning away from a culture that feeds her ego and starves her soul.
No spoilers, but an honest take
How I longed to watch a complete metamorphosis of Elisabeth, that she might find meaning and purpose as she gives up the impossible standards of youth and beauty. But Elisabeth’s liberation in this fictional retelling is short-lived. She cannot overcome the pressures of a culture that want to see her perfect without abandoning herself in the last half of life.
Honestly, the ending depressed me. But the movie is a statement about aging that holds true 120 years later. The transition from maiden to mother to true queen is not a simple passage. Liberation is an inside process: hard-earned, not guaranteed, but ultimately most rewarding.
Corsage plays in select theatres and on Amazon Prime.
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