‘Corsage’ gives a modern edge to Austria’s Empress Elisabeth
Things had gotten a little real on the set of “ Corsage,” but nobody expected the star, Vicky Krieps, to jump out the window that day.
The scene involved a fencing match between Krieps, playing Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and Florian Teichtmeister as Emperor Franz Joseph. It’s a straightforward match and Elisabeth is supposed to be winning, in the midst of a tense argument. But Teichtmeister decided to change the choreography in the moment so he would win instead.
The movie, which is now playing in limited release and recently made the shortlist for an Oscar nomination, was intended to be an empathetic examination of a misunderstood woman, trapped in the prison of her gender, her time, her position, her celebrity and her beauty. This was a moment where she got to be a little stronger than the man and a man had just taken it away. It hit Krieps hard.
When Teichtmeister exited, the scene was technically over, but Krieps was still in it. The director, Marie Kreutzer, kept the cameras rolling as she sometimes does and suddenly Krieps was crying. Then she walked over to the window and jumped. Everyone gasped.
“Why is she going out the window?” the director of photography exclaimed. She was fine, mind you. The room was on the first floor. But it wasn’t in the script.
The film was actually, technically, Krieps’ idea. She had been fascinated by the 19th century empress since she was a young girl, when - unbeknownst to her feminist mother who repelled “princess things” - she watched Ernst Marischka’s “Sisi” trilogy at a friend’s house. The 1950s films starring Romy Schneider, referred to by Elisabeth’s nickname, are a holiday broadcast staple in Europe. As a teenager, Krieps went a little further and picked up a biography.
“I was always suspicious of anything too nice and perfect. I was too young to really rationally grasp the whole thing but I felt related to this woman and I felt like she was trapped,” Krieps said. “They described her as being very eccentric, riding a lot, wearing a corset all the time, not eating, using exercise equipment. I kept thinking, but why? I had a suspicion that she was sad or angry but I couldn’t read anything about that. It stayed with me.”
In 2016, after working with Kreutzer on the film “We Used to Be Cool,” Krieps asked her if she’d want to do a Sisi movie of their own together. Kreutzer declined.
“Marie thought it was a very bad idea,” Krieps said. “She literally said, ‘What? No, that’s stupid.’”
Kreutzer, who is Austrian, had grown up with the kitschy trilogy and Elisabeth’s face on merchandise everywhere. In her memory, she wasn’t even sure Krieps was serious, but she did know she wanted to do a period film. So it came as a shock to Krieps when, a few years later, she opened up her letterbox to find a script from Kreutzer.
“Dear Vicky, I guess you were right,” an accompanying postcard read.
The film is not your standard costume picture, or even a straightforward biopic for both practical and thematic reasons.
“I knew it would have to have another style,” Kreutzer said. “We wanted it to look not as decorated and more simple.”
“Corsage” begins as Elisabeth turns 40 and the film has modern flourishes and a soundtrack with music from the likes of French pop star Camille. Some have compared it to Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” though, as one person told Kreutzer, “less ironic.”
“If I were to put it into music terms, ‘Marie Antoinette’ is pop and ‘Corsage’ is acoustic,” Kreutzer said.
And it came at just at the right time for Krieps, who had just become much more famous after the success of “Phantom Thread,” and felt like she’d had her own peek behind the curtain.
“To me, she really seemed like the first victim of celebrity culture,” Krieps said of Elisabeth. “I remember saying to Marie, ‘We are all Sisi now because we have Instagram and Facebook and we have become our own victims of our own image.’”
The filming was quite difficult. For one, Krieps decided to wear a corset the entire time to really feel what Elisabeth was feeling. This, she admits now, was a mistake, but one she committed to.
“I’m that stubborn,” said Krieps, who - thanks to long days on set - ended up wearing the corset for many more hours than any woman of the era, even Sisi, would have.
It was hard to sit, ride, fence and breathe. She couldn’t eat or drink coffee with it on and mostly stuck to smoothies and nighttime eating. She and Kreutzer also decided that she should remain a little isolated and distant from the cast, which was difficult in different ways.
“Normally, she would always talk to everybody and be very close with people. It’s really one of her strengths. She’s able to connect with people and makes people feel seen and not based on whether they are important or not,” Kreutzer said. “But I sensed early that this was not good for her as the empress.”
When it came time to film the fencing scene, Krieps was feeling everything quite deeply.
“That was a very sad day. It was actually very painful to me. I thought, really? You make a movie about this and this is happening now,” she said. “That day my pain had overgrown anything I could bear and I just needed to go somewhere with it. That’s why I went out the window.”
The only other thought in her mind was: “I hope there’s no scaffolding below.”
She never really asked her co-star, whom she loves and respects and knows is kind, why he made that decision. Maybe it was unconscious? Maybe his ego took over? But it made her feel connected to something bigger than the film.
Kreutzer had kind of forgotten about the window jump somewhere in the blur of filming and postproduction. They had actually even shot another window jumping scene that one was scripted. Then, in the edit, she rediscovered it. The lighting wasn’t perfect, but it was raw. And in the end, the unscripted one made the cut.
“It was the first movie I hated doing, but I love watching. When I watch it, I have goosebumps every time because I feel this liberation that we are all so in need of,” Krieps said. “Women have such deep, deep wounds over the generations. And we have to talk about it and we have to heal it and we have to get out of it.”