I was suddenly 'the girl from Phantom Thread.' And I’m not. I’m Vicky. I’m who I always was.
It’s Vienna, 1877. Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) approaches her 40th birthday, and it’s not, despite the fawning flattery of her inner circle, something she’s inclined to celebrate. For a woman whose role in the empire has been that of a highly decorative figurehead, the age signals decrepitude. Dissatisfaction—with her political role, a public image as restrictive as her undergarments, and herself—is fast becoming her default mode. Impulsive and restless by nature, she causes ripples of scandal in the austere Hapsburg court with her increasingly unconventional behavior in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, a broadly historically accurate interpretation—and an act of retroactive female emancipation—of the fabled empress also simply known to us as Sissi.
Chastised over 19th century optics, every day, Sissi faces literal and figurative struggles to fit into her corsage. Her self-destructive relationship to this garment—whose French name lends Kreutzer’s film its title—is emblematic of the empress chafing against the social limitations of her day. She lives in a series of chilly salons from which she takes refuge in bathrooms, subjecting herself to self-harming weight-loss regimes. Even in repose, impatience rises off her like the smoke from one of her frequent cigarettes. She’s taken to traveling ceaselessly around Europe, visiting old friends and former lovers, and throwing herself enthusiastically into riding horses and other athletic pursuits in order to assuage her frustrations at the restrictions that are unfairly imposed on her.
Corsage is the best showcase of Krieps’ defiant charisma since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. The Luxembourgish actress continues to prove she has excellent taste and a flair for risk-taking, having taken home the Best Actress gong in this year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard strand.
Corsage is exclusively in theaters via IFC Films on December 23rd.
You’ve been on my mind ever since I watched Corsage at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea back in October, and I also recently rewatched Phantom Thread and Bergman Island.
Very cool. That’s so nice.
Congratulations on your recent European Film Award. Obviously, awards are not the most important thing. Still, it must feel nice to get recognized for your art and all the hard work.
Many people have a weird relationship to awards. I always see it like a comforting postcard you would get from your grandmother, who says, “I’m with you,” which is so important because with the movies I do—since you’ve watched my films—I always try to carry a strong message about opening our hearts, believing in love, and women being strong. That’s why awards feel nice. I feel recognized as an artist and as a person who wants to contribute in this dialogue.
It also opens up future opportunities, and in that way, it brings it back to your art.
Yes, that’s true.
With all these accolades coming your way now, are you already seeing more doors opening?
No, nothing has really changed. My next project is again a small one from from a guy who’s made one film before. I don’t know why it didn’t really change. Maybe it’s because I don’t change.
Corsage gave me a wildly different perspective on Empress Elisabeth than what I was used to. When you’re a tourist in Vienna, you just see her as this princess—a national emblem. I hadn’t known about her as a restless, defiant, melancholic, and progressive freedom fighter. How did you first get to know her, and how did that first impression change over time?
The whole reason this film exists actually goes back to my childhood. I grew up with a mother who taught me to be free and to climb on trees. I was never taught to be the princess. My neighbors were the opposite. They were more conservative, and they were watching these Sissi movies [a trilogy of films from the 1950s by Ernst Marischka] every Christmas. Of course, not having that at home, I was drawn to it. I went to see those movies at their house. My first impression of her was far simpler: The beautiful princess. Then when I was 14 or 15, I remember reading the biography of Princess Elisabeth because they had that as well. Towards the end of it, I got more and more sad because I could feel that there was something behind this facade that they don’t talk about, and it felt unfair to me. It felt like something is not said about her. It’s like, she was eccentric and she was difficult and she was riding all these horses, having this wonderful waist, and building fitness instruments. But they never said anything as to why she was doing this. To me, it seemed like there was something more. When I made a movie with Marie Kreutzer in Vienna in 2016 [We Used to Be Cool], we said we should work together again, and being surrounded by all these images of Princess Elisabeth, I said, “We have to make a movie about this woman. Why didn’t anyone make a movie about her again, except these very kitschy, superficial versions?” And Marie thought this was a very stupid idea because she had grown up with what you just described. She grew up with Sissi being this kitschy, superficial, white princess, and she was not interested in that. I said, “Well, I remember reading about her and I think there’s something there.” Two years later, Marie had read the biography and written a script. She sent it to me after I finished the press tour for Phantom Thread. It was in my letterbox with a postcard: “I guess you were right. Here’s the screenplay.”
For anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Sissi, Corsage is a great opportunity in which to rediscover her. I visited Trauttmansdorff Castle in South Tyrol, one of Sissi’s former holiday residences, this past summer, and even there, all you’re taking in are the beautiful gardens. It’s not enlightening about her in any way, yet her visage is everywhere.
You don’t even think about it. All she wanted was to get away. We made a portrait of a complex woman. It took courage to make her as complicated as she was, but also understandable because she’s hard to understand. I don’t think she even understood herself. We are all Sissi. We don’t understand ourselves. We are not understood by our partners or by our families. And that’s okay. When you make movies, they tell you, “The character has to be likable. You can’t lose your audience.” And I remembered that saying in my acting. I felt very rebellious because I remember thinking, “No one’s gonna like this.” Now the opposite is happening and it’s wonderful, but I really didn’t expect it. I really thought that I would upset people by being someone, or showing someone, so cold—a character that turns her back on the audience even, and not explaining it.
I remember you saying this in a past interview, about wanting to have the audience chase your character, whereas, more often, it’s the other way around where you’re made to chase the audience to capture their attention. Your Sissi is someone to discover, and it’s not so easy to find her. I gather that you trust your audience. You trust that they’re capable of doing that.
I always trust them—secretly. I make my films for the audience, trusting them. Of course, I had no reason to believe I was right because I’m surrounded by, and seeing, the opposite. There are some who do it, but most movies don’t do that. For some reason, as an actor, it felt very daring to do it, and I’m very surprised that it worked and that people were able to follow her, able to forgive her. Or, even if they don’t forgive her, still go with it and say, “Well, that is her. That is her story.”
Did you feel conflicted in telling a story about rebellion, yet having to be bound in a corset in order to serve the film? I’ve come to learn that it was very painful for you physically.
Yes, it was very painful. And it was a stupid mistake I made because I didn’t calculate the countless hours I would have to wear it on set. But I’m someone who was always told that, if you make a mistake, it’s your own fault, and it’s for you to solve it. [laughs] So I just stick with it. It was super painful. I can’t even describe it. But also, it was painful on a mental level because I wanted to express myself. Everything felt so hard to do because I had so little air. If I wanted to get angry, it would require so much air just to have even a little bit of anger come out. So it was very frustrating for me who’s used to using my body. I’m very physical. I like dancing. I like to move all the time. I climb on every tree I come across, still to this day. Being in the corset was terror for me, really. Every evening, Marie and I had to sit down with a glass of wine because we actually needed it. Every day, we were like, “Oh my god.” I didn’t know how I would finish it. I was like, “This is insane. How am I gonna finish it?” [laughs] But, of course, I had to finish it.
So you were raised freely by free-thinking parents. I wonder if there was an aha moment in your career where you chose not to care about what other people thought about you. Or did that carry over from your upbringing, to just want to be yourself, your own kind of person?
I already had it from my upbringing. But there was a moment I remember, before Phantom Thread, where they tell you these things. I don’t know why it’s not more openly known, but they tell you: “As a woman, you have to start super young.” You can’t exceed the age of—I don’t even know what. You have to go to these parties and dinners and show up to things and wear nice clothes and go to the red carpets and have your pictures taken and shake the hands of producers. These are actually things that they do tell you. And I remember thinking, “I’m not going to do that. I will do it a different way—or I’m totally fine with not doing this job.” I did this movie called The Chambermaid Lynn, and it’s an amazing film. It’s completely artistic and crazy. It’s about a woman who’s OCD and lies under the bed of people in hotels, and there’s a love story between her and a dominatrix. It’s really wild and I love it, but no one saw it. That was, of course, proof of what everyone was saying: I was this person who was not on any list. No one talked to me. That film was sold through Canada to the US and had a tiny iTunes release for maybe a week. PTA [Paul Thomas Anderson] was on the plane with his iPad, and for whatever reason, he clicked on it.
He watched that film and liked it. He watched it twice. He called his casting director and said, “Can you add this name to your list?” Because I was not on the list—because I was not playing the game. I think that’s a moment where I challenged life, and why then everything happened. I believe in these things. I think I asked life to deliver me this answer. I was asking for this answer.
The very things that Sissi was fighting against—expectations, prescribed norms—is echoed in these experiences you’re talking about. Corsage must be cathartic on many different levels.
It’s very cathartic because I needed this, you know? After Phantom Thread, I was very confused: “What do they want from me? Who are these people talking to me? Why do they look at me? Why do they ask me what I’m wearing?” Really, it was so weird. I was suddenly “the girl from Phantom Thread.” And I’m not. I’m Vicky. I’m who I always was. I needed time away from it, and I did all these beautiful French films with whom I love deeply to rediscover my roots. And Corsage was very much my liberation out of this. I think giving the finger and pulling the tongue [in Corsage] is me to the system. I’m pulling my tongue to the industry: “If you don’t want me the way I am, I don’t want you. I’m not going to change.” I am who I am. I will never be the nice, beautiful girl. And now I can do it sometimes—I’m able to do photo shoots and things because I find ways to have fun with it. I am only myself. When I talk to you now, I don’t know you, but I’m actually talking to you. I don’t know what I’m going to say before I say it. And after this, I will only remember your face and what we talked about. This is the way I found to do it my own way.
I love the echo between what you once said, “You can misbehave once you know how to behave first,” and what Marie has said, “You can break the rules of writing, but you need to know the rules of writing first.” What does it mean for you to know the rules first?
My mother was very rebellious. She was an angry, rebellious woman. So I think I have this from my mother. But if I would only rebel, I wouldn’t understand my grandmother, and I also want to understand her. I want to love both my grandmother and my mother. This is, for me, what it means to know the rules first. It means that I had to go and make peace and understand my grandmother and why she was the way she was, why there were all these rules and everything, to learn from her and how it was to be her, to then be someone who can rebel. I didn’t wanna just rebel because I can—I wanted to understand who these women were that were playing by the rules, who were being put down, and who were not so loud maybe. Maybe they were very silent and just doing what they were told. But to understand why they were doing it and feel their pain, or maybe just their understanding of life, gives me the right then I think to go and rebel in a loving way.
Have you had the chance to watch Corsage with your mother?
What was that like?
It was the first time that she was so happy. She was overwhelmed. She wouldn’t stop saying, “This is so beautiful, this is so beautiful.” She was crying and she was super happy.