Nearly 125 years after her assassination, Empress Elisabeth of Austria — or Sisi for her perpetual cultist — continues to inspire Europe’s veritable portrait industry: in the past year alone, a novel, two TV series (one of which is a glossy Netflix issue) and two feature films have been dedicated to the icon tightly controlled property. Viewers outside the continental confines of Sisi’s obsession may have only scored on one of those films, Marie Kreutzer’s elegant, subversive, anti-autobiographical Corsage, which might make German director Frauke Finsterwalder’s second film “Sisi & I” lush and irreverent. For them, it was too soon—repeating several serendipitous tricks from Kreutzer’s outdated playbook with modern feminist imaginings, contemporary soundtrack cues and sexy costumes, albeit with plenty of panache of its own.
That unfortunate timing, combined with the lack of a star Vicky Krebs-style crossover, might cost “Sisi & I” some distributor attention outside Europe: comparisons between the two films are inevitable, and Finsterwalder’s film isn’t entirely unique from its immediate predecessor. Vision, although many viewers may find it better and brighter in the movies. Yet on the neighboring house and lawn, where the film is only ushered into an ever-expanding dossier of Sisi mythos, this fine production should comfortably connect with audiences after its premiere at the Berlinale – which features the spotlight on Countess Irma Satari, Empress’ lady-in-waiting The latter, played slyly and energetically by the dependable Sandra Holler.
Irma, the Hungarian spinster who accompanied Sisi for the last four years of her life, is presented as a cheerful, downtrodden character prone to abuse and abuse. We first meet her while interviewing the lady-in-waiting in mode, bleeding from the nose after a harsh slap in the face from her resentful, vindictive mother (the horrified Sibylle Canonica); The humiliating interview sees her being handled and frisked like cattle, before unenthusiastically deciding what she will do. Arriving in idyllic summertime Corfu for her new lover and seasick, she sweats through her ragged Viennese clothes and vomits on herself – at this point we seem to be heading into ‘Bridget Jones’ territory, in less attractive lingerie.
But the mood changes as the elegant cotton Empress (Susan Woolf, so gorgeous in “Styx”) enters the scene, and so, almost instantly, does Irma: the newcomer’s body language turns slow and succulent, her tense features relaxed to mirror that of a sissy. mischievous mien; Other changes have been imposed, as Empress Irma puts on her meager and off-putting diet—cocaine and nettle juice are essential—and has all her clothes burned in favor of a wardrobe that matches her clean bohemian style. It’s a bizarre, narcissistic turn bordering on seductive, establishing Sisi as a cultural magnet, and nodding to her obsessive future. Fashion designer Tanya Hausner’s witty, colorful creations tell much of the story here, as eras ooze with aplomb as cool period corsets give way to timeless art prints and Ralph Lauren’s androgynous style—with high-fashion appeal as the only line.
But adoration is exhausting, even when effectively directed by the beloved: “Sisi & I” depicts the Empress ultimately feeling trapped by the obsession and jealousy she inspires in others. Irma’s quasi-romantic bondage becomes increasingly oppressive to her as the increasingly possessive demands made by her hitherto estranged husband (a cold cameo by Marcus Schleinzer). When she turns to men for a distraction — whether it’s her fling with her flamboyant boyfriend, Archduke Victor of Austria (the cheerful Georg Friedrich) or getting down and dirty with the gruff British stableman Smith (Tom Rhys-Harris) — Irma’s envy is especially acute: “Men always remind me of tablecloths.” she said early. However, while her mistress clearly feels free in the company of devoted women, their desires never seem completely aligned.
There’s a malleable, amusing unease in all the noise and juggling behind closed court doors, suggesting less the character’s sparse, close-up interrogation of “Corsage” than the excerpt’s “The Favourite,” buoyed by the itchy friction between Holler’s tense, ambitious energy and Wolfe’s cool, calm expert. . If “Sisi & I” loses momentum and form a bit near the end of its very long 132 minutes – as the sparring between mistress and servant begins to spiral around itself – it always impresses with Thomas W. The velvety, tactile 16mm Kiennast lens and exquisite, magazine-ready design contributions. By contrast, the soundtrack heavy on female-powered pop and rock from artists like Portishead feels a little tricky, not least when Finsterwalder focuses on literal lyrical connections instead. “Own another’s will as you wish / You are beautiful and you are alone,” German icon Niko utters of a low-key decline for the Empress – this fine work of Sisi lore has already painted that picture.
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