Exclusive Interview with Marie Kreutzer on “Corsage”: About Being a Woman
When women tell stories about women, time makes no difference. Women creators may situate their heroines in the present, past or future. What is important, and what makes these characters different, is that they are created by female minds. They reveal the female psyche, a psyche that has lay hidden for all history. Such is the experience of watching Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage.
Nineteenth-century Empress of Austria Elizabeth’s ultra-famous quirkiness and obsession with beauty in this director’s interpretation become details of a much larger picture. The fact that Elizabeth (otherwise known as Sissi) was a queen and an empress meant a well-documented life for this movie. A life that – aside from the idiosyncrasies of aristocracy – could have been any woman at any time.
Like other characters in Kreutzer’s work (as in her recent The Ground Beneath My Feet), Elizabeth feels uncomfortable in her own skin in Corsage. “I have nothing to hold onto,” she says to her doctor. “Except myself. And sometimes even that seems like an incredible effort.”
Her life appears to be a chase after an unknown fulfillment. Preoccupation with her looks and weight appears to be less motivated by vanity and more by a desire to find the exceptional. Cigarettes offer a novel pleasure; riding her horse in the middle of the cold night with her sick daughter perhaps speaks of a complicated urge to risk it all, even that which is loved the most.
“What I sensed were little acts of rebellion,” explained the Austrian director at an HFPA interview after the Jerusalem Film Festival where Corsage was included in the international competition. “Her traveling away as much as possible, her finding ways not to attend official events, her resisting to eat when she had to sit at a big dinner – that made me want to tell her story as a story of empowerment and rebellion against expectations. All that made it feel like a very timeless story about being a woman.”
It is no coincidence that the film pays special tribute to Elizabeth’s frequent visits to mental hospitals. “Her poems are very melancholic, so maybe she really felt there was a part in her that was close to depression and that brought an interest in the field,” said Kreutzer. “I can only guess or come up with my own interpretation.”
And so mental illness, among other elements, is interpreted as an odd escape from the shackles of society, while the lunatic asylum becomes the antithesis of palace halls in the movie – a place where people surrender to rather than oppress the commands of their psyche. We imagine that Elizabeth too would have felt relief were she allowed to delve into her pain and the incredible weight of being “a mother who lost a child and a woman who is not close to anyone, because nobody loves her unconditionally, without expectations.”
Throughout the story, Elizabeth’s relationship with her children is ambivalent. On one hand, we sense her longing for a real connection with them or an avenue for her maternal love, and, on the other, her conflicted feelings about being judged by them for not acting according to the royal code of conduct. “She was not a typical mother of her time, especially not for aristocracy,” the director confirmed. “It was not a mother’s job in her position at that time to bring up the children. It was only her job to have children, most importantly a son.”
While the film stays true to the period, Kreutzer chooses to use some modern elements, especially with the music score and production design. A melancholy song performed with the harp, for example, seems fully integrated into the scene when one begins to recognize Marianne Faithfull’s As Tears Go By. However, time and again in Corsage, modernity serves as a vehicle for the subject’s timelessness: women have been the outsiders, then and now.
“There was a lot of struggle and it took a lot of fights – and still does – to be taken seriously,” said the director about her own experience in the workplace. “There are still moments in the financing and production process or even around the release of a film where I know that I would be talked to differently if I was a man. I am almost 45 and this is my fifth feature film, and still men sometimes talk down to me as if I were a young girl doing all this for the first time.”
Despite Kreutzer’s ultimate empathy for the heroine, it was Vicky Krieps, the actress who embodies Elizabeth with extraordinary finesse and complexity (and earned the Best Actress Award at this year’s Un Certain Regard section at Cannes), who felt passionate about bringing the Bavarian empress to life as seen through the female prism.
“Elisabeth is such a cliché [in Austria], her portrait is printed on souvenirs from Vienna, and I did not consider her to be interesting,” the director admitted. But Krieps – who had previously collaborated with Kreutzer on We Used to Be Cool (2016) – convinced the director to take on the project and was the one who endowed the character with exceptionality and unpredictability. “It [was] very important not to tame [Krieps], to give her the space to surprise me as a director,” Kreutzer mentioned. “We are both not interested in repeating takes and making everything perfect.”
Between fiction and history, this director and this actress pictured a woman whose spirit could not be crushed, whose unstoppable impulse for living continually confronted an oppressive sense of obligation and duty, an impulse which was then transformed into a will to die. To be her own master even if just to end it all.
“I think everything Elizabeth wants is to feel deeply, that’s why she doesn’t fear to be hurt or hurt herself,” Kreutzer revealed. “I think in the moments when she decides to end her life, she is most alive, most herself, because she knows that from now on everything will work according to her plans. She is in charge now – finally.”