By Roger Costa
It’s 1877 when the Empress Elisabeth of Austria turns 40 and descends into a personal crisis affected by her position, her social and political roles, as well as her family duties. But the cause of her anxiety and distress is caused mostly by her intense desire for understanding herself, her nature and the attempts of reaching self liberation in contrast with what they expect from her, now deemed an old woman by society and most terribly by her family. Ignored by her husband, judged by her son based on people’s rumors and concerns, and underestimated by her child daughter, the Empress is in a state of profound distress and seeks to fulfill the sorrow with unknown pleasures. Deeply stuck to her melancholy and yearning to be accepted for who she really is, especially when putting all formalities apart and finds herself discovering the pure pleasures of natural living, contemplation and adventure, she seeks console in travelling and others, but is never really fulfilled by her own standards and needs.
She lives in a world surrounded by obstacles and rarely finds peace, despite rare singular moments in her children’s company, enduring her husband’s patriarchal character, though at points he allows her to come-and-go as she pleases, her son’s judgemental and controlling behavior, and the disdain and disrespect seen on her daughter’s disappointment (the daughter never gives her credit and feels completely embarrassed by her behavior). At points, she feels more like home when she is visiting hospitals and other facilities where she finds inspiration and fuel to survive through the tragic stories represented by the ill women she assists.
Imagining the emotional turmoil and life of this incredibly complex, humane and kind royal figure, writer-director Marie Kreutzer crafts a marvelously melancholic and transfixing portrait of a woman willing to give up on the privileges for the simple pleasures of living, or for the right to die as one’s choice. Influenced by her visits to the lifeless palace where the Empress lived, the historical documents, and other accurate research material, Kreutzer proves her ability to entertain, seduce, provoke and intrigue all at once with this luxurious, gorgeously shot and perfectly elaborated period production. She also defies history, changing the end of the Empress’ story to reflect in a more modern context.
But it’s Vicky Krieps who commands the show, as the Empress, delivering one of the most complex character studies of recent memory. There is an immediate connection, empathy to her character as soon as the viewer catches the eyes on her. It feels like magic, as we just can’t turn the eyes away- she hypnotizes and conducts the narrative, as a diva, an intriguingly lonely and outcast royalty. Krieps enchants with her deeply moving, remarkably distinguished performance, reaffirming her presence power and charisma.
She won the Un Certain Regard Best Actress Award in Cannes, only to go on collecting other major festivals’ awards including top honors in Chicago, Montclair, Sarajevo and the coveted European Film Award. Next, she may be up for an Oscar nomination, which would be much deserved. The film is also a contender as Austria’s official entry for the Best International Film race at 2023 Oscars. It is a breathtaking performance and a woundrously melancholic, stunningly crafted, sensual and beguiling female drama.
(IFC Films. 12/23. Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Center NYC)