Sisi-mania: first royal celebrity celebrated in cinemas and on Netflix

She has been described as a Habsburg pop star, the first royal celebrity, the earliest example of a media shamed woman, and a long undiscovered 19th-century feminist icon.

Elisabeth, Empress of Austriais now being revived for the modern age with two new feature films, two television series, including a Netflix biopic, and a novel.

The newest of them, Corsage, which opened in German cinemas on Thursday and premiered in Cannes in May, has shocked some critics by the departure of the traditionally romantic image of the Empress into a darker psychological examination. Her suffering from the constraints of court life is embodied in the title. Scenes described as “painful to watch” show Sisi, played by Vicky Krieps, strapped into her tiny corset and insisting that her maids, whose hands are raw from trying, keep tightening it. The film opens on her 40th birthday in 1877, as she struggles to keep up with the expectation that she must always remain youthful — fed a diet of orange slices and beef broth — the film ends with a reportedly shocking scene, which critics have said worthy of Quentin Tarantino.

The TV series Sisi, on the other hand, is a bleak portrait of her rambunctious marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph and her brutal exploitation by the Habsburgs as a fine figurehead who saw in her only a producer of a suitable heir to the throne. Well received so far, it has caused a stir with its candid portrayal of her sexuality.

A still from Sisi
Gloomy portrait: Sisi. Photo: RTL+

Sisi, as she was more widely known, was most famously embodied in a hugely popular 1950s television trilogy by German-Austrian actress Romy Schneider. Schneider also later starred as a more mature princess in a 1972 film by Luchino Visconti about her close friend, the gay, eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The actress later complained, “Sisi sticks to me like oatmeal.”

A Bavarian princess before she was designated as a suitable future wife for Franz Joseph and married him at the age of 16, had four children, before being murdered at the age of 60 by an Italian anarchist, Sisi famously opposed the limitations of Habsburg court life. Dominique Devenport, who stars in the series Sisi, which is streamed on RTL+ in Germany, has said the character “works” as a recognizable figure because of her strong female story. “She asks the questions people are asking themselves today,” she told German media. “How do I stay true to myself, what decisions do I have to make, how do I meet the expectations that everyone has of me?”

The Netflix series The Empress is slated to release in the fall and is expected to partner with its rivals to help spark a new interest in the aristocrat, which is somewhat predictable compared to the late Princess Diana. Parallels have been drawn between Corsage, created by Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer, and director Pablo Larrain’s 2021 historical fiction drama, Spencerabout Diana’s tormented life.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung praised Kreutzer for turning the sugary image of Sisi upside down, showing her she masturbated in the bath, smoked, gave the finger to courtiers, took heroin to calm her nerves and made her husband an asshole. mentioned. “Kreuzter has produced a shock therapy,” the critic wrote. He praises her for “liberating” Sisi from a “Romyschneiderization, which Romy Schneider himself would have approved first”.

A Karen Duve novel, due out in September, is expected to flesh out yet another side of her character: a radiant fighter and dressage rider. Duve has described Sisi as an “undiscovered feminist icon”.

‘She asks the questions people ask themselves today’: a photo shoot on the set of Sisi. Photo: RTL+

The Hofburg and Schönbrunn palaces in Vienna, where Sisi lived, have long been strong tourist magnets for those who wanted to follow her trail. Her exercise rings and pommel horse, on which she reportedly worked excessively on a daily basis, are among the main attractions, while her face adorns everything from chocolate boxes to opera glasses. Sisi’s story recently turned out to be a blockbuster in the German-speaking world as stage musical, Elisabeth, which reached an audience of 10 million spectators between 1992 and 2019, but never made it to the English-language stage. It has spawned a particularly strong cult following in Japan, where it has been performed.

But Austrian commentator Hans Rauscher has said the repeated revival of the Sisi story has a more sinister appeal. At first glance, he wrote in Der Standard, it is “the fascination of a beautiful young woman, the empress of a European empire,” but in reality, he said, it is rather the more mundane tale of “an overwhelmed teenager who married her cousin, a pedantic bastard, who infected her with an STD at 16.” He describes the new recordings as “spicier, but just as unpalatable” as Romy Schneider’s images, suggesting that the interest in Sisi is far too has to do with characteristics that she exhibited that Austrians have to deal with “depressed, obedience over freedom, neurotic” which, he said, “may explain the Sisi cult”.

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