Before I start with my theories about the “Sissi”-universe, I want to acknowledge the fact that I’m slowly moving to the use of English for my film reviews. As a matter of fact it allows me to reach more readers. Now let’s talk about film!
Most of continental europeans have seen the films “Sissi” (AU 1955) with Romy Schneider in the title role alongside Magda Schneider, her mother, and Karlheinz Böhm as Franz Joseph. The fairytale princess given by a young and beautiful Romy truly breathes the air of the Wiederaufbau, the reconstruction of Germany and Austria after the Second World War. There’s a sens of wealth, glamour and prosperity in these films and even though they might seem a bit dull to todays viewers their habitus is an optimistic one.
We instead live in the age of dystopies. Not only on screen but also off screen: In the very fancy end credits of “Corsage” we see Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps) dancing with meter-long hair and a moustache, resembling more a french Louis than the princess seen during the film – and whilst I was enjoying this final bit of the film my co-viewer made me attentive to a role I had never seen in the end credits so far: “Covid coordinator”. Of course, it must have been tricky to shoot a movie in 2021. Think of the amount of masks and hand sanitizer needed on set.
In Kreutzer’s “Corsage” no one wears a mask on screen. The sanitary situation isn’t part of the many anachronisms that viewers will identify in the film, starting with a very enjoyable soundtrack (signed by the french auteur-compositrice Camille), many props like lighters and some decor elements (lamps, cleaning gear, doors etc.). This rock’n’roll mise en scène won’t win the hearts of strict lovers of the “Period Piece” genre but is in my opinion quite classy. The run down fencing studio or the residences in England, even the dining room of Elisabeth’s cousin, Ludwig, is totally up-to-date with it’s mix of contemporary furniture (metallic chairs), naked walls (the paint is peeling off) and french press on the table.
“No one wears a mask on screen” could be misunderstood. Of course at court, everyone wears a “social mask”. Elisabeth is obliged to represent an empire and even though at first it seemed fun to the Bavarian born empress she’s soon fed up with her decorative role alongside Franz Joseph, FJ as she calls him, who is constantly occupied by his role as a monarch. This Sissi is nothing like the one Romy gave in the fifties. She is depressed, cares for wounded soldiers and poor people suffering from mental illnesses.
Let me add another layer of comparison as I happen to be a Netflix-spectator of the series “Die Kaiserin”. It’s not really comparable because the series is made to please a wide, possibly global audience with a very good-looking cast, some erotic scenes and catchy music to make your home-cinema experience as comfortable as possible.
On the other side of the Sissi-spectrum is Vicky Krieps’ rather creepy Elisabeth: obsessed by her weight and even controlling, what her favourite Marie eats because she sometimes plays her double in public appearances. Her melancholia leads her to suicidal thoughts and the doctor recommends injections of a completely new drug on the market: heroin.
Some fact-checking would be necessary to see if this is really true. However one can easily imagine that the role of an empress at the end of the 19th Century must have been a very difficult one and the feminist inside Elisabeth is shushed by FJ as soon as she shows some signs of empowerment or willingness to be involved in the daily business of an emperor.
She flees to her cousin Ludwig, even tries sleeping with him but understands that he prefers mounting his stable-boys. Nevertheless, her visits at Ludwig’s castle are some of the rare moments of fun she seems to have. The life in Vienna is ruled by a stiff protocol and court etiquette, which she can only avoid by pretending to feel unwell or even faint.