More than a century before the neverending stream of social media and its unrealistic expectations of beauty affected the ways in which people, especially women, are “supposed” to look, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known simply as Sissi (the first one name global celebrity perhaps?) was so aware of what people expected from her image, that at 32 she stopped sitting for portraitists and photographers. If her image was what people loved about her, then she refused to age. 

While Sissi’s beauty and exercise regimes have become the stuff of legend (she had bars and rings installed in her dressing room in the Hofburg palace in Vienna, and would wash her long hair with brandy and raw eggs about once a month) in Corsage, director Marie Kreutzer invites us to look beyond our conception of the Empress as “beauty-obsessed” to consider the ways in which her image was a gift she gave people in exchange for inner peace. 

In Corsage, Sissi (played by a fantastic Vicky Krieps) is a vibrant woman who hasn’t even turned 40 but has been told she’d already lived her life. She spends her days in almost complete estrangement from her husband (Florian Teichtmeister) trying to carve a life she wishes to live within the restrictions of the palace. In her desire to see the tragic Empress with a  kinder lens, Kreutzer also refreshes the concept of the biopic, forgoing the stuffiness of costume dramas to create a world that breathes and craves life with the same force as its leading lady.

We spoke to Kreutzer about the images that inspired Corsage, the ways in which fashion has historically imprisoned women, and her love for small acts of rebellion.

The Film Stage: The way in which the Empress lives and moves in Corsage is almost like watching a ghost, where it seems people don’t see her or can’t see her. At one point you realize she doesn’t even ask to be seen anymore because no one bothered to, so she gave up. Were you thinking about ghost stories in any way when you shot the film?

Marie Kreutzer: I think not in a conscious way, but I can absolutely relate to that… although now that you were talking I kind of remembered Vicky and I talked about it once, about that ghosty element. Also, when I’m writing I listen to a lot of music and I have my mood boards and on my mood boards, there were many images from ghost films, actually! I wanted to have that atmosphere of darkness. I always love it in films when there’s a certain atmosphere that you cannot really put a finger on. It’s like something is uncanny but you can’t really tell why. 

Mostly, when you do films people ask for a specific genre and they make you take genre decisions. But I always like it when it’s not so clear—so that might be what you’re referring to. And of course, in all of these old castles, it always feels a bit like you’re in a ghost house.

What were some of the ghost images you had on your mood boards?

I did the same for my last feature film, The Ground Beneath My Feet, which was about two women, and one of them was in a psychiatry ward. I did a lot of research about psychiatry and then stumbled across photos from earlier in the 20th century which were all very creepy and frightening. For this film I got back to the research in a way because Sissi was so interested in psychiatry and we have these scenes in the film. So there were some images from the old mood board that came onto my new mood board because of that parallel, and when you’re using Pinterest they always suggest new stuff.

There were many elements I searched for. I would always look for old photos of women with very long hair, and these are often very creepy because they are a little bit animal-like. When we were starting to work on the production design we were always collecting these images from these lost places. Like an old castle where nobody knows what happened, but now it’s rotten and seems to hold many secrets. Things like that inspired me a lot.

I love that you brought up your previous film, because there’s this sisterhood almost between the characters in The Ground Beneath My Feet and Sissi. It’s all about women who aren’t seen. 

That’s the one thing I think about the most on many levels and in many situations between people, but also in my private and professional life, that we as women have to meet so many expectations, and still it never seems to be enough. We’re not considered equal still on so many levels, although many people would say no, we’re all equal. But in real life, there’s always a very different situation for men and women. I could, for example, talk about that applying it to the film industry, for example. I mean, just recently, a journalist said to me “Oh, another Austrian woman was nominated for the European Film Awards last year. Where is that women miracle coming from?” And I said, “It’s not a miracle. It’s a lot of hard work for all of us, and very often much hard work to even get there as a woman.” We can all name the female directors who make a living from their films, but we cannot name all of the male directors who do. I could talk about that for hours.

I think that’s what my films reflect without me wanting them to have a message. But that’s, of course, something that’s meaningful to me, and that’s why it’s always in there. I didn’t think about The Ground Beneath My Feet while doing Corsage, but I can see what you mean. An Austrian journalist said to me, “It’s basically the same story.” And yeah: there are, of course, parallels, and I think that always comes from storytellers—in this case writers’ / directors’—opinion on things. I cannot hide my opinions.

I went down a rabbit hole looking up the history of corsages and corsets and they have torture-like purposes in a way. Recently I watched a documentary on Virginia Woolf and my jaw just dropped to the floor when I saw that, apparently, one of the treatments that she was given when she had her episodes with hallucinations and depression, was that they would put her in total isolation and feed her only milk for days on end. So this just made me think so much about how obviously it’s men who come up with these devices and treatments. Do you have any insight about this from the research you made for the film?

It’s very interesting what you just told me about the milk treatment because Sissi actually, sometimes only had milk for days. I mean, it’s crazy, isn’t it? I’d never heard that about Virginia Woolf, that she received treatment like that. For Sissi it came from her thinking a lot about health and also about her weight and her diet. She even brought her cows or goats on ships to have her own milk. She was crazy about milk. 

Another torture instrument I have to deal with frequently, and I could also make a film about, are high heels. It’s basically the same thing, it makes us unable to move freely. And it’s still something that’s demanded by society and men. When women are stepping on a red carpet or go to a wedding or whatever, they are supposed to wear high-heeled shoes, which is funny for 20 minutes, and then hurts no matter how expensive and good the shoes are. It’s just torture, really. 

It’s kind of comparable, actually. To be honest, I didn’t do the research for corsages; my costume designer did. For me it just really came from the story of her being so focused on her waist, which she was so famous for. When you go to the city museum in Vienna, you can really see the figurines with the clothes and you can really see how tiny her waist actually was. Vicky’s corset was so tight that it took eight centimeters of her waist, but of course, she didn’t have Sissi’s waist, because Sissi was tied to a corset beginning from her being 12 years old or something. So her body and her organs would grow in a different manner so that they could fit in that corset. 

There’s interesting medical drawings that you can find on the internet, where you can see what happened to female bodies who were tied in a corset when they were young. I feel bad I didn’t read more about that. [Laughs] I find it so mean though, because it’s about you not moving or even breathing freely

It’s almost like carrying a prison with you.

Yes. It’s also how I wanted our corsage to look like: a cage, an instrument. Because the first draft of the first idea of the corsage from the costume designer was much more beautiful. And I said, “Let’s not go down that road. It’s not luxury. It’s something that’s really an instrument to keep her in a cage.”

Talking about a less painful but beautiful piece of clothing, I loved the entire sequence where Sissi wears the veil. I couldn’t help but think about, as a filmmaker with the camera, you kind of wear a veil on set. You see things behind the lens that other can’t see. Is that true in any way?

I didn’t think of it that way because, actually, I tried them on too when we did the costume rehearsals and it’s not like you can see so well with a veil. [laughs] It’s also isolating you when you’re wearing a veil, so actually I thought more about the women in Afghanistan who are not allowed to do anything anymore and always have to wear these face coverings. I think the camera is different, but it’s an interesting idea. 

With a veil you’re in your own little space, and maybe that’s why she did it, because it kind of protected her. But then also it takes you away from people.  I’m sharing this quite freely because I always do and I think it’s very important to normalize mental health issues. I had different episodes of anxiety disorder, and it was not like I was crazy anxious about certain things, I had the very normal anxieties everyone has, just as a general. It’s called a general anxiety disorder, which means that you just spend much more time worrying about everything and then at some point what happened, and when it happened for the first time, I really thought I would become crazy. I kind of dissociated from the world, it felt like there was a glass between me and the rest of the world, I felt isolated without being in another room, I couldn’t really relate to anyone anymore. I was in my late 20s when it happened and I couldn’t really explain it. 

After months of going to therapy, I learned that it was a kind of protection of your mind to protect you from too many impressions and feelings. There’s a word for it, derealization or dissociation, and it’s just to protect you actually. It’s what happens after trauma, for example, and I had to think about this, even though it happened like 15 years ago, but I had to think about this with the veil because it’s a bit like that. You’re in your own little world. No one can come there, but you can’t reach out either. There is no connection anymore. 

Thank you for sharing that. Does filmmaking and the ability to control the world you created help provide a respite from anxiety in any way?

Absolutely. For me, everything that I can control makes it better. I’m not in that state anymore but I still deal with anxiety and I always feel it’s getting worse when there’s too much input, too many impressions, too many people. That’s why I have to be careful when traveling with the film, because when I’m talking to dozens of people every day, it kind of can turn to anxiety at some point. And I don’t feel anxiety about the people, but I get the bad feeling and high heart rate and everything. 

I always like it when everything is organized and tidy and that’s why filmmaking is a very good tool for me too. You have to have an overview and you have to be really organized. But then there are also these moments when you have to let go, you also have to learn to deal with uncontrolled things, because otherwise, a film doesn’t come to life when you’re only doing everything and trying to make everything perfect. The film won’t live. There’s more than one example of films to me, which are perfect, but they don’t touch me, and it’s because they don’t feel like they have a pulse even because they’re so perfect. 

That’s why I think that it’s also beautiful about directing that when I’m really on set with the actors and everyone, I have to let go of my preparation, I have to let go of the plan, I cannot think about the entire thing, or I will be crazy. I cannot think about the entire budget every day, I just have to focus on what I’m doing in the moment and let go of everything else. And this is really something that makes me very happy. When I’m shooting is really one of the rarest moments where I’m really in the present because you can’t think about everything else or anything else actually.

So your meditation is to make movies?

No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s too exhausting for that. [Laughs] 

You’ve mentioned you didn’t have a particular interest in Sissi until Vicky brought her up. What was it about her pitch that grabbed your attention?

You know what, it wasn’t even a pitch. It was a casual “we could do something about Sissi,” and I said, “Haha, no way.” So that was about it. But it just kind of stayed with me and then at some point, I thought I could try and read a book about her and find out if there could be anything of interest to me. So Vicky was kind of planting a seed, then two years later, I started doing the research. It was so interesting to read about a woman who never really liked the place she was born into, or she was married into. She didn’t like it from the beginning. She really happened to become an empress when she was 16. I don’t think it was her wish or plan, and then it took her more than 20 years to finally come up with some kind of rebellion.

I love these small acts of rebellion that I write about so much that I thought that’s something I can relate to: a woman who says: I don’t want to be anymore what society wants me to be. And I wanted to show her at that point where that shifts or changes, when she’s on one hand still trying to protect her own image, because that’s all she has really, and that’s all that people love her for. But at the same time, she tries to figure out, do I even want to be that anymore? I always thought about her image as her main antagonist. The antagonist is not the emperor or someone else, it’s not a person, it’s her own oversized image. 

[Note: The next question is a spoiler.]

So what could be a bolder act of rebellion than giving her a different ending? I loved your conclusion so much because it made me think of this image of Princess Diana that SZA paid homage to with her new album cover, where she’s sitting peacefully in what seems to be the middle of the ocean. It’s a vision of beautiful isolation. At a time when so many critics and audience members are demanding that art be a history lesson, can you talk about poetry, like your ending, as an act of rebellion?

One of the first things I realized when reading about her is that every biography is an interpretation. I mean, there was one very thin book that was all facts, no interpretation. But that was an exception; most biographies are interpretation. So what are they doing? They have to fill in the blanks. They have to make a story. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m not judging that—I love reading biographies. But you have to put things in context and you have to turn them into a story. Otherwise, people wouldn’t like to read them,

Reading a biography feels like looking into someone’s life, and we went out there, but no historian can look into these lives, really; nobody knows what happened behind closed doors. So at a very early point in research I felt quite free to do my own interpretation and that was really fun and playful, because I tried to know as much as possible, and then just take what really supported my idea or my interpretation. When I came up with the ending I knew I didn’t want to retell a story of a woman being murdered by a man, because that we’ve seen enough of I think. I wanted to give her power and control and to decide what was going on. I really saw—or see—the last sequence of the film like she’s the director of her own ending: she’s just really creating it.

She could have just killed herself in an easier way, but she creates it by doing all this while also at the same time protecting the Empire by finding a replacement for her, so that they don’t have to tell anyone if they don’t want to. I love that because what brought the idea to me is that nobody saw Sissi after her late 30s because she was always wearing the veil and she didn’t even allow painters to paint her anymore. She was traveling all the time; she wasn’t even there. Nobody really saw her for over 20 years, and I thought, doesn’t that leave a lot of room for speculation? There are so many facts and stories you can use, but history is what we make of it.

Corsage is now in limited release and expands wide on January 6.

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