The real-life Elisabeth married Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1854, when she was 16, making her Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. She has been portrayed in opera, ballet, a 1950s Austrian film trilogy, and a Netflix series called “The Empress.” The tragic murder-suicide of her son, the heir to the throne, and the woman he loved but was not allowed to marry was the subject of the 1968 movie “Mayerling.” A noted beauty, her appearance was her primary concern. Today she might be diagnosed as anorexic or bulimic. She weighed herself as often as three times a day and severely restricted what she ate, often fasting for days.
In this unabashedly fictionalized version, the corsage/corset serves as a metaphor symbolizing the constrictions of a life of privilege but no power. Within her small sphere, she can make demands of her ladies-in-waiting. But outside of her rooms, she is constantly being told what to do by her husband and her son. Over and over, we see her testing restrictions within the limits of her situation. She is told she must make an appearance at a formal event, the emperor pointedly noting that she has been criticized for not spending enough time in Hungary. She arrives, but then she faints. While anyone whose corset is laced so tightly it is difficult to breathe might faint from lack of oxygen, she knows how to fake a swoon.
Elisabeth has only limited control over her activities and relationships. But she is most concerned about the helplessness we all face: time and aging. “At 40, a person begins to disperse and fade” if all meaning comes from how she is perceived. Politics and threats on all sides bound the power of an empress. But the power of beauty is less subtle and less complicated for the brief time it is there. That is something any actress understands, which may be why Krieps is not only the star but the producer of this film.