Period dramas has often tried to deconstruct antiquated definitions of feminism, but few manage to mirror our modern-day predicament with choice feminism and individualist downfall quite like Corsage – Alexandria Slater digs into the instant classic.
In a world where women’s emancipation hasn’t altered sky-high expectations of women, only shifting the goalposts for those in a higher class, a comparison of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria and the Kardashian family reveals that self-indulgent acts of empowerment are nothing more than privilege, offensive to women without the luxury or illusion of choice.
In her third feature film, director Marie Kreutzer explores the double edged sword of one woman’s liberation through Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s fight for preservation of her beauty and youth. Kreutzer’s psychological character study of a royal choking on the silver spoon presents the hardships of being a woman trapped by the control of her husband and suffocated by a waist corsage. Unlike other period dramas, like The Great which recounts the life of Catherine the Great through a rose-tinted feminist lens, Corsage shows how Sissi’s acts of defiance – like smoking cigarettes despite her fear of ageing – against the standards she’s helped to uphold harm herself. But more importantly, it shows how the secondhand smoke of her self-centred rebellion hurts the less privileged women around her.
Like the stylish historical inaccuracies Sofia Coppola introduced to the mainstream biopic genre with Marie Antoinette, Kreutzer’s unconventional period piece is littered with anachronistic moments. In Corsage, the sharp cutaways to Sissi sticking her tongue out or giving the middle finger, serve as a reminder that the issues of beauty, feminism and class in the film transcend 19th century history.
“Long may she live, beautiful may she remain,” is sung to Sissi on her birthday. Empress Elisabeth of Austria was idolised for her beauty and famous for inspiring fashion trends. Even today, she’s the poster face of Vienna. Her attempts to preserve her youthful image have succeeded, thanks to souvenir shops and Austrian director Ernst Marischka’s Sissi film trilogy starring Romy Schneider. But, by opening the film on the dreaded day for any woman of that era, Sissi’s 40th birthday, Kreutzer honours the empress’s fight to break out of the mould of womanhood whilst remembering the women who didn’t have the resources to do the same.
The first time we meet Sissi, she’s submerged in a bathtub, attempting to fight against her body by holding her breath for as long as possible. This motif of voluntary suffocation and imprisonment ripples throughout the film. Beauty is pain, as Sissi is a prisoner in her own body and her body is an extension of Austria’s 19th century archaic rules. The corset she wears to cinch her waist (which, in one scene, is so tight it makes a maid throw up after wearing it for 20 minutes) crushes her ribcage into her solar plexus – the part of the body attributed to low self-esteem and control issues if blocked. Her beautiful trademark braids are so tight they cause her headaches. Her diet consists of thin slices of oranges, whilst her husband freely feasts on gluttonous plates of food.
After all, excess weight on a man in that era was merely a symbol of wealth. And what was once a hair and fashion trend setter with a level of visibility and influence that mirrors Kardashian status is now a fading woman hiding behind black veils, in an attempt to label herself invisible before society’s shelf life for women can dictate. She even demanded that only paintings from when she was younger were made public and refused to be painted. It parallels the Kardashians’ need for control over image, to the point where Khloe Kardashian’s legal team fought to remove an unedited photo of her from social media. By clinging onto any opportunity for control of herself and public opinion, Sissi’s psychological torment hangs over her like a thorn crown.
“A pedestal is as much a prison as any other small space.” This quote popularised by Gloria Steinem, acts as the narrative framework for many biopics, particularly Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. The psychological period drama unravels the inner workings of Princess Diana’s mental torment. Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Diana embodies a feminine type of suffering that centres a loveless marriage, which is enough for a viewer to empathise whilst, crucially, being able to acknowledge the privilege she held. Instead, Larraín dismisses the opportunity for a complex character study of Diana, exploring her privilege as well as pain and opting for a surface level portrayal of a “poor little rich girl”. This idea that a character study of a female royal can only be humanising and relatable if their compliance in the patriarchy is swept under the rug is counterproductive.
Tony McNamara’s TV show about the longest ruling Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, falls into this reductive character writing by trying to distance the portrayal of the empress from the violence and bloodshed of her real life actions in The Great. The show seems to use “an occasionally true story” to shield their protagonist from accountability and frames Elle Fanning’s Catherine as a moral pacifist who only wants “a coup of ideas, not bloodshed.” The show is a girlbossification of an empress who realised her plans to liberate serfs in Russia would depose her power. With this realisation, Catherine abandoned her principles and not only did she worsen serfdom in Russia, but also imposed it on Ukrainians. By compromising on her less stereotypically appealing qualities like her oblivious hypocrisy and self-centeredness for the sake of playing into a scrupulous feminist narrative, the traits that made her ‘The Great’, like her intelligence and weaponisation of sex and power, are exchanged for naivety in a watered down version of an Empress’s reign.
More importantly, holding these female political figures to higher standards fuels the double standard that women need to strive for perfection in beauty and work, whilst mediocrity is good enough for men. Rather than candy flossing over how one woman's individualist choices can harm the women around her, intentionally or not, Kreutzer gives equal consideration to the women around Sissi.
Once Sissi eventually decides to free herself from the restricting lifestyle and opinions of others, her liberation isn’t without consequence. Rather than advocating against the patriarchal pressures placed on women, the Empress hands down these suffocating rules to her maid as thoughtlessly as a spoiled child donating a broken toy. Sissi is a victim of her times and the viewer can both empathise with this as well as acknowledging her willingness to perpetuate the oppression. Sissi is so self-absorbed that she can’t possibly see the irony of making her maid starve to make a believable body double for a public appearance, or inflicting subjugation onto her maids whilst simultaneously trying to escape her own feelings of being trapped. This self-absorbedness underpins ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’ author, Florence Given’s type of feminism that loudly proclaims, “Imagine the person you’d become if you stopped trying to fix others and put that energy into yourself.”
The finishing touch on Sissi’s new body double sees the maid get the same anchor tattoo scarred onto the back of her shoulder, reinforcing the idea that Sissi’s newfound liberation and freedom of deadly beauty expectations is impossible without the weighing down of a less privileged woman, given either the choice to agree or assumedly be ostracised.
Kreutzer subverts the period piece drama in a similar fashion to Coppola with a startling reminder of today’s exploitation of working class women’s bodies through surrogacy. Sissi uses her maid’s body to live comfortably in her own, which has unnerving echoes with women obtaining surrogates to avoid pregnancy changing their bodies, or to allow them to continue working. In a Guardian interview, Dr Vicken Sahakian says: “If you’re a 28-year-old model or an actor and you get pregnant, you’re going to lose your job. If social surrogacy was more affordable, more women would be doing it, absolutely.” This surrendering to a patriarchal society, rather than advocating to alter structures to accommodate all women, pokes holes in choice feminism – which views women’s individualist acts through as justified and politically acceptable. In an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, where the sisters discuss the Roe v Wade case, Khloe is asked what she would think if her surrogate mother wasn’t comfortable with having multiple babies. “But don’t they have to go with what our wishes are?” was her response, before adding with a stunned “oh” after being told, “it’s her body so she has a right to terminate a pregnancy.” This lack of consideration for and exploitation of other women’s bodies mimics Sissi’s failure to grasp how her wounds scar others.
Choice feminism and Kardashian-esque mantras like “build your empire” desperately try to conceal the blemishes of individualism like a poorly made, overpriced foundation. And unlike popular period dramas that succumb to the girl-bossification of tyrants and aristocrats, every decision Sissi makes in Corsage that leads to setting herself free doubles as a harrowing reminder: under a patriarchy, no woman can be free without imprisoning another.
Corsage is in UK cinemas via Picturehouse from December 26. Shop our VICKY KRIEPS t-shirt now.