Corsage and the Persistent Paradox of Being Looked At

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Corsage and the Persistent Paradox of Being Looked At

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) is aware of the eyes on her. So, she controls her image to an obsessive degree. She subsists on a scant diet of beef broth and lean meat that never allows room in her stomach for things like pastries or dumplings. She weighs herself regularly and constricts her already small waist as tightly as her body will allow using her corsage—or “corset,” as is more commonly known in the present day. And like with her weight, she has her servants write down a note of her waist measurement once the corsage is fitted to her liking. In real life, Empress Elisabeth is infamous for her petite waist of only 16 inches; an unfathomably small number, but an ideal of beauty that she was compelled to maintain under the intense scrutiny of the press and of the gossip between her elite peers. An outsider thrust into a regal life by the circumstances of her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I at the age of 16, it was a life that Elisabeth never settled into. As Marie Kreutzer’s film Corsage depicts, Elisabeth lashed out in odd, erratic and sometimes life-threatening ways because of this perpetual discomfort.

Corsage toys with fact and fiction to create a portrait of a woman embattled by what she stood for. And as modern music with a regal twist from French singer Camille provides the backing to much of the film, there is an unmistakable and intentional connecting thread between the 19th century Austrian monarchy and today. This extends beyond the much-documented mistreatment by the British press of Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, perhaps the most obvious comparison to make: Two interlopers attempting to integrate into a royal life that will never truly accept them. At one point in history, you really had to be royal for the world to look at you, but now, Empress Elisabeth and Meghan Markle aren’t the only ones being scrutinized by millions of strangers. “We love anybody who loves in us that which we would like to be,” Elisabeth tells us in voiceover. Within the rigorous confines of social media, this remains relevant—it’s quotes like this that made me think about women’s relationship to Instagram.

To make a serious point that royals were the first recipients of social media clout sounds misguided and foolish at best—I’m not necessarily trying to say exactly that. But Corsage sets out, in part, to prove that nothing has changed all that much between 19th century Austria and 2022 in the way visible women are perceived by the world at large. On Instagram and TikTok, women maintain million-follower accounts for the sole purpose of allowing others to gaze upon their beauty, of creating content aimed at maintaining that image of beauty, and purposefully manufacturing what exactly that beauty looks like through artificial manipulation. These apps intrinsically diminish women’s value by allowing them to gain social and monetary momentum through appearance alone, and create unhealthy standards that those watching these women feel they must meet. Faces and bodies become homogenized, and material worth is imparted upon assimilating into this homogenization. There is pressure placed upon women to conform, to be agreeable to look at, so that they may too be looked upon by thousands of strangers favorably.

As Elisabeth’s aggrieved husband Emperor Franz (Florian Teichtmeister) bluntly puts it, he is the one ruling over Austria, while Elisabeth merely acts as the beautiful face of the empire. He tells her that her beauty is why he chose her to be his wife. Elisabeth’s entire existence rests on being the image of perfection, and so she yields to being just that, both to the world and to herself. Her interactions and relationships with others are anchored by how they see her. It’s all her life rests on, so eventually she just wants to end it. Elisabeth becomes more unpredictable and melancholic in the aftermath of her 40th birthday. She explains that at age 40, women begin to disperse and fade. Now, she wants to disappear completely. She jumps out a window; she cuts off her luxurious hair; she misbehaves and smokes and flirts openly with other men; she pleasures herself to the mere act of being looked at. Above all, she feels as if she has nothing to lose, because she is the only one looking out for her.

What do people say to Elisabeth when they speak to her? They consistently reduce her to a face, an age and, specifically, an example of beauty. When blowing out the candles on her 40th birthday cake, she is told that she has a “steady breath like a 20-year-old.” Another member of the elite observes that they had read in the papers of Elisabeth’s struggle with her weight. Over and over, Elisabeth is reminded of her looks. Her exquisite, glorious, youthful beauty, that will surely only get more lovely as she ages—as is sung about to her on her birthday. But it never makes Elisabeth feel confident and complimented. It’s never treated as something to take pride in. It only makes her feel like she has an expectation to meet and that nothing else she could offer would be of any value. She is shrunken down into a fraction of a woman.

The only difference in this shrinking of women, between Elisabeth’s time and ours, is that now, this experience is shared. A significant portion of the population is now watched and judged online by thousands upon thousands of people every day. Elisabeth’s royal life used to be unique. Now, the misfortune of being looked at and observed for one’s carefully cultivated image of false perfection is no longer a novel experience; it has trickled down to the lucky proletariat. You need not marry into the monarchy to understand what it’s like to be judged, picked apart, reduced to images instead of feelings by the entire world.

As Camille’s synth-pop track “She Was” hangs on the peripheries of Corsage, the refrain “Go, go, go, go away,” cuts through certain scenes. It’s a sentiment very obviously held by Elisabeth towards most of the world; the two simple words she yearns to utter. But it also seemingly clashes with Elisabeth’s response to her riding instructor Bay (Colin Morgan)—with whom she conspicuously flirts in front of her own family members—when he realizes that she didn’t really want to have sex with him: “I love to look at you looking at me.” After the scene, Elisabeth masturbates. It is the paradoxical gratification of being looked at, of being beautiful and utterly worthless. By masturbating to Bay’s reverence, she reclaims worth from what makes her worthless, yet takes part in that which belittles her existence. If this beauty is all that she’s good for or entitled to, the least she can do is derive some pleasure from it. As influencers monetize shallowness, we’re still clearly searching for that pleasure in what shrinks us down to a fraction.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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