A film about the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was not the most obvious choice of subject matter for filmmaker Marie Kreutzer. She considers herself a minimalist; royal period films are about extravagant excess. It is precisely this dissonance that makes her new film, “Corsage,” about the famed Austrian Empress Elisabeth, so unexpectedly mesmerizing and provocative.
With Vicky Krieps in a commanding performance as the rebellious Empress — known to Austrians as “Sisi”— Kreutzer paints a naturalistic picture of the rotting grandeur of Habsburg life. Delectably upending preconceived notions at every turn, Kreutzer leans into the decaying beauty of Austro-Hungarian excess: Drafty castles with half-peeling paint jobs, restrictive undergarments that give the film its beguiling title, and elaborate and laborious hair regimens paint a naturalistic portrait of Sisi’s more than likely grim daily reality.
“I always like the broken things more than too neat and nice and beautiful things,” the director told IndieWire during a recent in-person interview. “I didn’t want her hair to look perfect, I wanted it to be like its own creature. It has something animal-like to me, hair of that length is like a fur in a way.”
Kreutzer did exhaustive research, but she is fully aware that she brings her own interpretation to the story, and a very different one than most Austrians are used to seeing.
“They are all different in a way, they are always an interpretation,” she said. “There’s not one story, and I found that was very freeing. I couldn’t have made it ‘correct’ if I tried, and that also was important because everybody in Austria thinks they know who she was.”
Kreutzer met Krieps while working on her 2016 film “We Used to Be Cool,” an indie comedy about three couples navigating life after having kids. When Krieps initially floated the idea for a Sisi film, she thought it was a joke. (Kreutzer discusses their collaboration further in this video interview with IndieWire’s Eric Kohn.)
“I didn’t really think she was serious because it was like a cliché, it was just not cool or interesting to get into that for me,” she said. “But it stayed with me, and at some point. … I was open to maybe finding something in the material that would resonate with me or not.”
Kreutzer found her way in through Sisi’s unconventional approach to her empress duties, which were well documented at the time. Disillusioned with the lack of freedom in royal life, she exerted control wherever she could, flirting openly in front of her husband and ignoring dignitaries at state dinners.
“She escaped in many small ways, and there were many small acts of rebellion. That was something that really drew me to her because I also don’t deal well with authority,” Kreutzer said. “For example, she had to sit at these dinners, but nobody could make her touch the food or talk to anyone. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s like a performance, a counter-performance to what the others are performing,’ and I loved that.”
Since her rise to international success with her Oscar-nominated performance in 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” Krieps was no longer an unassuming presence on set. Used to working on a much smaller scale together, the two old friends found the contrast of the large-scale period production funny at times.
“Sometimes we’d laugh because it suddenly felt so adult compared to our first film together,” she said. “Being together on set again and suddenly everybody was like, ‘Vicky!’ It was such a huge set that at some moments it felt like we were playing.”
Kreutzer adapted quickly and realized she could use Krieps’ star power to her creative advantage. Whereas normally, she would encourage the actors to get to know each other, in this case, she nurtured the reverence Krieps inspired in the rest of the cast.
“I don’t need them to be close. I needed them distanced. So I really didn’t encourage them to spend so much time together, and she didn’t have time anyways,” said Kreutzer. “Mostly we just said, ‘When Vicky enters the room, we will start shooting.’ No rehearsals on set, no nothing. And that was an essential part for this film. For this film, it was important not to have such a nice cozy atmosphere on set. She kept her distance with the crew also, which is not typical for her, and it was hard for her sometimes.”
Another unusual choice confused some of the performers: All the actors were practically bare-faced, wearing as little makeup as possible.
“I chose to do that because, with all that elegance and beautiful dresses, you attempt to just make them all look beautiful, but I thought this was also not realistic,” she said. “And Sisi was so proud of not wearing makeup at all, she would always make fun of women wearing makeup. Then I thought, ‘Let’s not have makeup at all.’ That’s what I love about cinema, seeing these faces up close. I wanted to see them as they are.”
Though the grandeur on display is elaborate, “Corsage” is much more interested in Sisi’s interior life than her ornate surroundings. There are very few historical details in the film, as Sisi is deliberately locked out of important decisions by her husband, emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister). By eschewing the expected touchstones of a royal drama, Kreutzer leaves room for more nuanced emotional beats to flood in. And Austria still loves it: after a well-received Cannes premiere, the film is now the country’s entry for Best International Film at the Oscars.
“I try to write only what is necessary, but in the process, you realize how much more you can remove,” she said. “I love to throw scenes away. I also love to throw stuff away. I love to have very good things, but little.”
IFC Films releases “Corsage” in theaters on Friday, December 23.