Over the course of her 44-year reign, Empress Elisabeth of Austria would gain a reputation for her deep melancholia and 19.5-inch waist. The second daughter of a Bavarian duke and princess, Sisi (as she liked to be called) met her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I, when she was a teenager in the summer of 1853. Franz Joseph was supposed to marry Sisi’s older sister, but the girls were coming from a funeral when they met, and Sisi looked more beautiful in black. The couple would go on to have a sour union: Sisi disliked the strictures of monarchy, and Franz Joseph found his wife childish and indulgent. But it didn’t matter that she hated public life, because she looked so good living it. “You cannot believe how charming Sisi is when she cries,” Princess Sophie of Bavaria once wrote of her daughter-in-law.
In Austria, Sisi’s likeness and the lore of her disaffection is so cliché that images of her face and her famed ankle-length hair appear on chocolates and tins of sugared violets. But in the new biopic Corsage, Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer approaches Sisi’s story as a part-fact, part-fiction revisionist history about the empress’s late 30s and 40s. In this period, Sisi felt her beauty, which had defined her for so long, slipping away. “It was normal for a woman, when she turned 40, to be considered an old woman. There was no discussion about that,” Kreutzer says. “But she struggled with it. She’d always been seen and loved as the beautiful young empress. What would she be if she wasn’t able to be that anymore?”
The film, which comes out in theaters on December 23, stars Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps as the empress who tries to cling to her beauty — and value — by maintaining her thinness. She rigorously exercises and follows a punishing diet regimen of lean meats, broth, and oranges sliced wafer-thin. “Long may she live,” partygoers sing to Sisi at her birthday party as a lavish purple cake with a Sisi bust in the center is carried out. “Beautiful may she remain.” When the empress blows out her candles, a woman praises her for having the “breath of a 20-year-old.” Although she loves sweets, Sisi doesn’t eat the cake — or much of anything at all.
Sisi hands out candied violets to patients who flatter her at a mental hospital, where less privileged women are observed for afflictions the empress empathizes with — like melancholy and adultery. In Kreutzer’s research, she found that books and museums about Sisi refrain from naming her eating disorder for what it was, ironically leaving her to be remembered as image-obsessed in perpetuity. “What she did and did not eat and how little she ate is in every biography,” she says. “They say she was health-conscious, which was not typical for the time.”
Krieps, who first read a Sisi biography when she was 15 and was moved by the empress’s palpable sadness, remembers obfuscation around her eating habits. “I could tell there was a reason she was obsessed with riding and sport,” says Krieps, describing how people talked about Sisi as if her body dysmorphia “was a beautiful tic” she had.
The eating habits of unhappy royals are constant cinematic fascinations. The way subjects restrict themselves offer windows into the wider ways the crown restricts them. In Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, Princess Diana vomits up pearls in a nightmarish sequence — a nod to her bulimia and repudiation of her royal life. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is the pinnacle of indulgence: A 14-year-old bride leaves her home in Austria for the critical eyes of Versailles, and what she lacks in her marriage is made up for by opulent pastries and coupe towers of champagne. (Sisi’s birthday cake in Corsage was baked by popular Vienna-based cake artist Sophia Stolz, who drew inspiration from Marie Antoinette’s cakes in decorating hers with vintage Austrian candy.)
Sisi’s diet toes the line between disorder and personal revolt. In a scene of a later dinner party, she starves herself before simply getting up and leaving, flashing the aristocracy her middle finger as she goes. Kreutzer was intrigued by factual accounts of Sisi at dinner parties, where the empress not only declined to eat but to speak to anyone. “I thought, This was really a performance,” Kreutzer says. “I have to be there but I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy your company.” She wanted Corsage to be “more than just a suffering, depressing empress in a golden cage but someone who would go against that and find a way to free herself.”
While Corsage’s Sisi dreams of cream cake, she never sees sexual desire as liberation. Her desires and pleasures are insular and so shaped by the demand to be desirable that she doesn’t have time to want anyone herself. After seducing her horseback-riding instructor in a cabin, Sisi observes him fall to his knees and drag his fingers up her thighs before asking him if he thinks she’s beautiful. “You’re the fucking sun,” he replies, becoming unnerved when he realizes that they won’t consummate the flirtation. All she wanted was to be wanted: “I love to look at you looking at me,” she says, and later masturbates in a bathtub.
The real Sisi’s life ended in tragedy: Her son died in a murder-suicide with his lover, and she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist. Corsage revises that history in its latter half by weaving in moments of pure edible pleasure. In a pivotal scene, Sisi’s sweet-loving cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria, pours thick chocolate down her throat (“It almost suffocated me,” says Krieps, who finished eating it after the cameras stopped rolling), and the pleasure opens her up to new possibilities. In a fantasy sequence, Sisi stops starving herself and consumes what she pleases but slowly disappears from public life, creating a doppelgänger out of a lady’s maid who wears a veil on her face and takes Sisi’s place at events while the real Sisi eats chocolates in bed, shoots heroin, and relaxes with her Dalmatians.
Eventually, Sisi makes her replacement permanent, jumping to her death in a strangely joyful scene. If she couldn’t be seen and loved as the beautiful young empress, why be seen at all? The image of the real Sisi did die at the age of 40 anyway. The empress refused to be photographed or painted in her later years and wore veils during public appearances. “I read a lot of crime fiction, and when you read that someone was not seen anymore for more than 20 years, you’re like, How do we know it’s even her?” says Kreutzer. “That’s how the whole idea of her sneaking out of her life came to me. I thought it would be important for her to take control and create that ending herself.”