Life rarely brands a decisive point as the inception of a downward spiral. It is often a progressive process of deterioration that is aided as it is nudged by events big and small. Clinging close to life is how Marie Kreutzer’s “Corsage” devotedly maintains its grounded depiction of Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria. Kreutzer’s objective eyes are without rose-tinted glasses. Straying far from the deified portrayal of her immortalized beauty that films have obsessively sung about, “Corsage” sees Empress Elizabeth as a depressed, blemished human made of flesh and blood—just like everyone else. The film doesn’t chiefly demonize the worship of Elizabeth’s ephemeral beauty. Nonetheless, it does get included as one of the most consequential elements that consume her, pulverize her well-being, and subsequently feed her narcissism. How it began is not as significant as its gradual escalation and eventual dissolution.
Focusing exclusively on a crucial year of Elizabeth’s melancholic life, “Corsage” silently observes her increasing insecurities and their effect on people around her. The looming 40th birthday wasn’t easy on Elizabeth’s emotional state. Snatched from her unrestrained adolescence and married off to Emperor Franz Joseph, Elizabeth only found asphyxiating confinement in her royal life as the Empress of Austria. For a woman of her wit and competency, it was excruciating to pass through a life where all she was needed for were her presence and her regal manners. A restless mind such as hers would inevitably latch on to any purpose whatsoever, no matter how inessential or vapid it might be. And that is precisely why she began devoting her life entirely to the preservation of her celebrated beauty. Her summery complexion and luscious locks were the talk of the town. The newspapers were more engaged in the fluctuations of her weight than the political unrest that devastated soldiers.
If her beauty is all that she is relevant for, her beauty is all she will give herself to. The thorns of it, however, appeared as insecurities, transcended into rigorous rituals and an eating disorder, and predominantly expressed themselves as rabid narcissism. Being praised, even at the expense of her admirers’ pain, was all that pleased Elizabeth. The curse of burdening beauty with the entire weight of one’s self-worth, however, is its fleeting nature. Yanked into her 40s, Elizabeth was faced with the discernible change in people’s eyes and words when they looked at her. She wasn’t anymore the youthful wonder who once made her subjects gawk and gasp in appreciation. Coming to terms with the unavoidable loss of blossoming radiance is something mankind has faced and will face for as long as life lasts on the planet. In the tense case of someone like Elizabeth—someone whose self-absorption was ardent even without the newfound insecurities of a midlife crisis—the frustration came out with all the venom of narcissism. Panting for adoration, Elizabeth offered her special treat of candied violets to the one patient who showered her with compliments at a psychiatric facility. Denial about the clear signs of natural aging would much more favorably be her refuge as long as her portrait showed the complexion that was no more. For a woman tormented by melancholia and loneliness, her appearance was her entire identity. The loss of her identity, along with the psychological effects of her evident menopause, drowned Elizabeth in a hell of frenzied desperation that 1878’s understanding of mental health could not pull her out of.
From what we see of her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, it is hard to imagine someone who once kissed the earth she walked on. Albeit, it is entirely believable that he was taken by her beauty and used to show a more expressive acknowledgment of it before he found her “old.” Elizabeth’s keen eyes and receptive emotions felt the blazing change. And therefore, the aching outcries of her narcissistic needs elevated her lack of regard for anyone other than herself. She let herself be easily swayed by a compliment strategically placed by someone who needed her impactful association to endorse his fascinating creation of a device that first caught moving pictures. To her stoic admirer Bay who halted his companionship with collateral Charlotte, Elizabeth bared her naked need for praise. All she cared about was the look of astonishment on his face whenever he laid eyes on her. What she cruelly overlooked was the love he had for her. The grief of her youth’s departure came in stages for Elizabeth. While sometimes she was cautiously eased into it, other times she received a frightening push. One of those heartbreaking instances was the sight of her husband being enamored by the charms of an 18-year-old.
The postmodern understanding of narcissism has wandered far from the image of Narcissus’ self-obsession. A condition that is now recognized to be the drive behind a person’s impotence in appointing the bare minimum sensibility toward others is what consistently floats up in Elizabeth’s story. Her random bursts of revolt against the stuffiness of the life that was forced on her were the fresh air she needed to keep herself from a maniacal spiral. It was, however, ridiculously unreasonable how she dragged the unwilling people into her necessary impulsivity. For a woman that still grieved the untimely demise of her infant, Elizabeth’s odd act of dragging her little daughter out of bed to take her riding in the freezing cold of the night and eventually causing her to fall sick was irresponsible, to say the least. Her acute narcissism even made her do something as obnoxious as stopping her handmaiden Marie from having a life of her own and getting married to the man she coveted because nobody else loved her for who she was like Marie did. And while it is my humane responsibility to recognize the engulfing depression that haunted Elizabeth and sympathize, it is also the right thing to do not to let her own plight justify the pain she inflicted on others.
Through the writer’s pen, Elizabeth’s midlife crisis got integrated into her acceptance of all that she couldn’t control. When the weight of prolonging her youth became too much for her to bear, she did something entirely relatable to people in her time and ours. She chopped off her hair, and with that, she got rid of the emotional strain she was buried under. Embracing the soothing effect of doctor-recommended heroin, Elizabeth let go of all that was demanded of her by society, her position, and herself. What she still couldn’t brush off, however, was her daunting self-importance. It was Marie who was made to starve and suffer in order to pass off as the Empress under the laced veil. Kreutzer’s Elizabeth, more than anything else, is the memory of an empress without the pressure of making her come off as anything more than human. And in retrospect, it may also have been the kind of love that Elizabeth needed to begin with. It is a love that doesn’t abandon its flawed beloved, and at the same time, it is also a kind of love that doesn’t enable all that is wrong.