I half-expected paparazzi to leap out from behind bushes such was the anachronistic tone of this tale of royal entitlement and female repression. But I’m glad the plagiarism issues surrounding Kris Kristofferson and The Rolling Stones have been cleared up now that it’s been revealed that “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “As Tears Go By” were originally composed in 1878 for mandolin and harp, respectively.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria lived such a hellish life it’s small wonder she committed suicide 20 years earlier than the history books dictated. Even the invention of the motion picture by an obscure photographer in 1878 – a decade before others made probably spurious claims to have come up with the idea – wasn’t enough to keep her going.
The real Empress Elisabeth, now that I’ve had to go and look her up, actually did correspond somewhat to the character represented her. She was obsessed with beauty and diet, the exceptionally tight corsets of the title self-inflicted as she strove to keep a 16-19-inch waist. Quite where this kind of mania came from is never explained. Her general depression could have been traced to the death of a daughter but that doesn’t figure in this bold reimagining. I’ve got nothing against movie makers twisting facts for their own convenience, Hollywood did it all the time so why should arthouses audiences escape. But I spent half the time watching this wondering whether anything was real, which would make the whole enterprise some kind of dreamlike experience and would mean she didn’t risk a daughter’s life by exposing her to the freezing cold in the middle of the night because she, the Empress, had a penchant for darkness she wanted the child to learn to embrace.
In some kind of nod to Absolutely Fabulous, it is the child who appears the more grown-up, admonishing her mother for embarrassing her. And in a nod to whatever the Empress gives the middle finger. And naturally she gets hooked on heroin (don’t ask).
Anyway, enough of my moaning, let’s go back to the movie and assume it’s all got a point. Hating her empty life, the Empress exerts authority by feigning a fainting fit to avoid royal duties, keeps her devoted husband waiting, fancies like mad a cousin she doesn’t know is gay, is considered such a suicide risk by the prospective lover that he prohibits her from drowning in his lake.
She is indulged as much as is humanly possible, permitted to take off on her travels at a whim, but attempts to improve the welfare of institutionalised women – some committed for adultery – and visits wounded soldiers (all true, as it happens). While her husband is devoted to her (true), that is not reciprocated (true) and out of kindness she arranges for him to take a young lover (fiction).
This is a movie devoid of drama, determined, as if below the dignity of an arthouse filmmaker, to ignore some of the real facts of her life, namely the complicated politics of the era, clashes with her domineering mother-in-law, that her son Rudolf was the subject of the Mayerling tragedy and that she was assassinated by an anarchist in Italy.
If the point is to show she was an accomplished woman in an era when queens were doormats and submissive wives, that aim is certainly achieved. Elisabeth, beyond keeping her husband waiting at every opportunity, openly argues with him, is a very competent fencer, could have written a book on eating (a Dieting DVD introduced into the proceedings would have been an anachronistic tour de force) as little as possible and the benefits of a healthy regimen.
As a portrait of a complex character it is certainly compelling and as the enigmatic is a tool of the artist, then little in the way of explanation is deemed necessary. But the problem, setting aside the anachronisms, is what we are presented with is a cross between Princess Di and Meghan.
Vicky Krieps (Old, 2021) plays the Empress. Marie Kreutzer (The Ground Beneath My Feet, 2019) wrote the screenplay and directed.
But you should be aware my views are very much in the minority and this has largely been acclaimed.