Period films, especially biographies featuring a famous historical figure, can start to get confusing. They’re never revolutionary, they always follow the same formula, and the only thing viewers discuss at the end is how cool the costumes were. But Body is different. This internationally co-produced historical drama by writer/director Maria Kreutzer was practically designed to reverse the usual stereotypes of the genre, with a rare and unique take on the story of 19th century Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
In Austria, Empress Elisabeth is an obsession. Her life has been told countless times through movies and books, and her face is reproduced on all tourist trinkets. Most famously, she was the subject of the ‘sissyfilm trilogy, a soapy, pink-tinged series created in the 1950s, a depiction that Body rebels against Instead, it is a fictional account of the year the empress turned 40, when society decided she had become an ‘old lady’ and she began to withdraw from the public eye.
Body it was riveting, a film that followed the slow passage of time without missing a beat. Every scene, whether it was Elisabeth dunking in a bathtub, smoking while she stood for a portrait, or red-faced and working out on a wall bar, was important and added insight into her character. And her character was fascinating. Portrayed by the impressive vicky krieps, the empress was imposing, steely and fascinating to watch. This version of Elisabeth (who couldn’t be further from the G-rated ’50s iteration), was an egotistical, angry sexual being, and a refreshingly complex portrayal of a historical woman.
The film consistently deviated from expectations, using dry humor to add surprising moments and avoiding the usual stale pace of indie historical dramas. It had a sarcastic undertone, illuminating the performative nature of the era through subtle clues, such as showing the characters’ false teeth, wigs, and sideburns. Also, the dialogue had many darkly funny lines, for example ‘I forbid you to drown in my lake, it’s my lake‘.
Body it was produced with an inherently feminine perspective. Many of the scenes had an erotic quality but were directed by kreutzer, they were found in a completely different way than those produced with the traditional male gaze. Elisabeth had a few romantic interactions throughout the film, but none of them involved unnecessary sexual action or nudity, and when they were included, she felt realistic. One of those moments was with her English riding instructor (collin morgan), where their intimacy was used to explore Elisabeth’s desire for admiration. It was not choreographed to attract a man. And it was still beautifully sensual.
The German word ‘corsage’ translates to ‘corset’, and this restrictive, stifling garment was not only a literal focus in the film, but also a metaphor for the confinement of the Empress’s life. Elisabeth’s struggles with body image and ageism, as well as limiting societal expectations of her role, will be relatable to any woman. These themes were viscerally explored in the film and it was immensely satisfying.
Some parts of the empress’s rebellion (like raising the middle finger to a room full of dignitaries) were obviously fictional, but others are true. She smoked, had a tattoo, rode horses at breakneck speed, and avoided her court by traveling for long periods of time. Body he just takes it a bit further and magnifies his growing disappointment, creating an imaginary ending that highlights the relevant parts of his story.
Among a plethora of boring and unoriginal historical stories, Body stands out as an unapologetic film with a transformative female perspective and a rebellious heart. For anyone who has ever felt trapped by the expectations of others, it is a truly liberating experience.
FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE)
As part of the Perth Festival, Body runs from November 28 to December 4 at the UWA Somerville Auditorium.