‘Sisi & I’ Review: Lively, Gorgeously Attired Costume Drama Continues the Radicalization of Austria’s Empress Elisabeth
Nearly 125 years after her assassination, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria — or Sisi to her enduring cultists — continues to inspire a veritable industry of portraiture in Europe: In the last year alone, a novel, two TV series (one of them a glossy Netflix affair) and two feature films have been dedicated to the tightly corseted royal icon. Viewers outside the Continental sphere of Sisi-mania may only have registered one of those films, Marie Kreutzer’s chic, subversive anti-biopic “Corsage,” which might make the second, German director Frauke Finsterwalder’s lush, irreverent “Sisi & I,” seem to them a too-soon spare — coincidentally repeating several tricks from Kreutzer’s anachronistic playbook with its modern feminist inflections, contemporary soundtrack cues and sensational fashions, albeit with plenty of its own panache.
That unfortunate timing, combined with the absence of a Vicky Krieps-style crossover arthouse star, may cost “Sisi & I” some distributor interest outside Europe: Comparisons between the two films are unavoidable, and Finsterwalder’s hasn’t quite its immediate predecessor’s singularity of vision, though many viewers are likely to find it a better, brighter time at the movies. On home and adjacent turf, however, where the film merely slots into an ever-expanding binder of Sisi mythology, this splendidly mounted production should comfortably connect with audiences following its Berlinale premiere — distinguished by the spotlight it throws on Countess Irma Sztáray, the Empress’s final lady-in-waiting, played with cunning and exuberance by the dependable Sandra Hüller.
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Irma, a Hungarian spinster who accompanied Sisi for the final four years of her life, is introduced as a gawky, downtrodden figure of fun, susceptible to pratfalls and abuse. We first meet her as she interviews for the lady-in-waiting in position, nose bleeding after a hard slap in the face from her resentful, vindictive mother (a terrifying Sibylle Canonica); the humiliating interview sees her handled and inspected like livestock, before it’s unenthusiastically determined that she’ll do. Arriving seasick and heatstruck at her new mistress’s idyllic Corfu summer estate, she sweats through her fussy Viennese finery and throws up on herself — at this point we seem headed into “Bridget Jones” territory, with even less flattering undergarments.
But the mood changes as the sleek, feline Empress (Susanne Wolff, so remarkable in “Styx”) enters the scene, and so, almost instantly, does Irma: The newcomer’s body language turns slow and supple, her tense features relaxing to mirror Sisi’s mischievous mien. Other alterations are forced, as the Empress places Irma on her own scant, disordered diet — cocaine and nettle juice are essentials — and has all her clothes burned in favor of a wardrobe that matches her own clean, bohemian chic. It’s a strange, narcissistic makeover that borders on a kind of seduction, establishing Sisi as a figure of cultish magnetism, and nodding to her obsessive future following. Costume designer Tanja Hausner’s witty, richly colored creations tell much of the story here, blurring eras with aplomb as dainty period corsetry gives way to anachronistic op-art prints and breezy Ralph Lauren-style androgyny — with high-fashion covetability as the only throughline.
But adoration is wearying, even when it’s effectively instructed by the adored: “Sisi & I” depicts the Empress eventually feeling trapped by the obsession and jealousy she inspires in others. Irma’s quasi-romantic servitude grows as oppressive to her as the increasingly possessive demands made by her hitherto estranged husband (a chilly cameo by filmmaker Markus Schleinzer). When she turns to men for distraction — whether yukking it up with her flamboyant pal, the Archduke Viktor of Austria (a gleefully lascivious Georg Friedrich) or getting down and dirty with callow British stablehand Smythe (Tom Rhys Harries) — Irma’s envy is especially aggravated: “Men always remind me of tablecloths,” she opines early on. Yet while her mistress plainly feels freest in the company of devoted women, their desires never seem entirely compatible.
There’s a elastic, enjoyable restlessness to all this behind-closed-court-doors bustle and bitchery, recalling less the sparse, close-up character interrogation of “Corsage” than the snippy gamesmanship of “The Favourite,” buoyed by the itchy friction between Hüller’s anxious, aspirational energy and Wolff’s cool, complacent hauteur. If “Sisi & I” loses momentum and shape a bit toward the end of its too-long 132 minutes — as the sparring between mistress and servant begins to circle on itself — it consistently gets by on the eye-candy delights of Thomas W. Kiennast’s velvety, tactile 16mm lensing and scrumptious, magazine-ready design contributions. A soundtrack heavy on female-powered pop and rock from such artists as Portishead feels, by contrast, a little try-hard, not least when Finsterwalder stresses rather literal lyrical connections. “Have someone else’s will as your own/You are beautiful and you are alone,” German icon Nico croons over a low ebb for the Empress — this particularly luscious work of Sisi lore has already painted that picture.
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