Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps), the protagonist of “Corsage,” has just turned 40. It’s December 1877 and she and her husband are returning home to Vienna. In addition to the press proclaiming that she’s over the hill, gossipy tongues are wagging about her weight. One can only imagine what they would say if the empress were not already wearing a corset so tight that it makes her pass out during a public appearance.
It turns out that the fainting was fake, an attempt to get attention. But that tight article of clothing is most definitely real. “Corsage” does not refer to the bouquet of flowers worn by prom dates; it’s the other definition, a corset. Writer-director Marie Kreutzer lingers on the brutality of tying one of these infernal rib-crushing devices, a visual metaphor for Elisabeth’s feelings as she becomes more constrained by society.
When the empress is dissatisfied with her measurements, she gets one of her stronger maids to tie her bodice even tighter. How can the press complain about her weight when they can barely see it? Her insides are practically vacuum-packed by that bodice!
Publicly, she appears not to care. “A lion doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep,” she says, a line that sounds like a rap battle diss. But privately, in voice-over, she confides, “At 40 a person begins to disperse and fade.” This dichotomy of public confidence and private doubt brings to mind another famous 40-year-old from the movies, Bette Davis’s Margo Channing from “All About Eve.” Krieps shares with Davis a penchant for playing women who are stronger and steelier than they initially appear.
Though it takes place in the 19th century, “Corsage” doesn’t stay there. Kreutzer occasionally opts for anachronistic flourishes that are jarring simply because they rouse the viewer from an exhausting state of watching the ennui of rich, privileged people for two hours.
For example, the German-language film scores slow-motion scenes with contemporary English-language songs. Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Help Me Make It Through the Night” shows up at a climactic moment. And at one point, someone plays a classical music version of the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” which, unsurprisingly, sounds pretty darn good on a harp.
A lot of attention is paid to artifice. The empress’s cheating husband, Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister), has fake mutton chops he hilariously removes once he gets inside the castle. The castles themselves, some of them real locations, have an unexpected, rundown interior disguised by their grandiose outside appearances, another metaphor for how the empress feels.
Like she does on the film’s poster, Krieps raises her fancy glove to display the rudest finger on the human hand. It doesn’t matter whether this meant in 1877 Vienna what it does now. By the time “Corsage” drags itself into its second hour of following Empress Elisabeth around as she staves off her own boredom, viewers may be happy for anything to break the monotony.
“Corsage” is a fictional story, but its characters are real. Empress Elisabeth remains extremely popular today. In addition to this film, there’s currently a Netflix series about her. Her fascinating real-life story, which includes a ghastly assassination in 1898, proved she deserved far better than this slow-moving drama. Despite the film’s tendency to drag, Vicky Krieps remains compulsively watchable, as always. She almost saves the movie.
Written and directed by Marie Kreutzer. Starring Vicky Krieps, Florian Teichtmeister. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall, Coolidge Corner, and Dedham Community Theatre, 113 minutes. Unrated.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.