Film Fest 919: Corsage and Empire of Light

A woman smokes a cigarette

Corsage, directed by Marie Kreutzer

Austria's submission for the Academy Awards this year, Corsage is a period piece and biopic about Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps), a royal with a back story fit for the gossip columns. Whether by personal choice or external pressure, she kept a physical regime that kept weight at 110 pounds and her waist at 16 inches, courtesy of a tightly-laced corset. Known for her beauty and youthful appearance, Elisabeth's obsession doesn't seem out of place in contemporary times. 

Director Marie Kreutzer bypasses any urge to present a factual book report and instead imagines her life in the style of a glamorous music video, bathing Elisabeth and her entourage in color-saturated light. Through Kreutzer's eyes, we see the vision of Elisabeth as an onlooker would, decked out with the latest luxurious clothing and hairstyles (chicks with upswept hair and sideburns is a hot look!). These moments are filmed in slow motion and paired with a lush tracklist featuring musical artist Camille. 

The times of glamour contract sharply with the realism of Elisabeth's reality behind closed doors. With no true connections other than the ladies in waiting who dote on her, the emptiness of a life without affection or unconditional love hands heavy on the head who wears this crown. 

A convincing comparison can be made between Corsage and Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, although that movie is far more fun. Still, the anachronistic score, the contrast of public vs. private personas, and luscious costumes tie these two films together. Corsage will flourish with audiences who loves historical period pieces, especially those that bring complex female characters to the forefront. 

There's glamour, there's fashion, and there's fainting. What else do you need? 

Final score: 2.5 out of 5

Olivia Colman as HILARY in EMPIRE OF LIGHT

Empire of Light, directed and written by Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes knows the magic of movies well. Viewers have been anticipating his next film after the smash hit, 1917, took the world by storm. Filmed to look like one continuous tracking shot (with a few breaks), 1917 keeps a tight focus on one man's journey. 

But he tries to take on one too many subjects in his newest relationship drama, Empire of Light. What starts out as a tale of two lost souls that meet at work becomes infinitely more complicated when Mendes tries to add on plotlines about race riots and mental health. 

Fate brings Hilary (Olive Colman) and Stephen (Michael Ward) together when they meet on the job at an oceanside movie theater. These two lonely souls, both dreamers at heart, design sandcastles in the sky when they convene in the abandoned theater lobby that sits on top of the theater building. Hilary has been manager at the theater for years and allows herself to be used as a sex object for married boss Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). She's resigned to a solitary lifestyle and never thinks to watch a film herself -- those luxuries are reserved for others. Stephen, an exceptionally kind and sensitive Black young man, has ambitions of becoming an architect but isn't sure he will get the opportunity. 

They find a reprieve in the moments they share and develop a camaraderie based on mutual respect and unconditional acceptance. Eventually the friendship turns sexual, but these are not two people trying to get their jollies. They are more like shipwrecked sailors clinging to a life raft. The bliss can't last forever, and external forces threaten to break into their carefully crafted bubble of protection. Anyone who has taken refuge in a comfort of watching a movie with strangers will feel right at home in the familiar setting of Empire. This movie celebrates the movie theater experience -- the plush seats, the smell of popcorn, and the thrill of seeing lights appear on a silver screen. Olivia Colman should immediately replace Nicole Kidman on the AMC intro. And then there's the found family of theater staff -- a group of misfits who find their place within the walls of the Empire. Truly the movie theater is a place where anyone can come and escape from the world's troubles, and Sam Mendes captures this truth completely. 

If the movie covered only life at the theater and the relationship between these two leads, Empire could easily join the ranks of excellent movies about movies. Mendes muddies the waters by adding in heavy subplots of race and mental health -- themes which instantly weigh down the cozy tone this film has nurtured. We know this friendship can't survive forever. Soulmates can exist outside boundaries of class, race, and age, but these intense relationships don't usually last when complications ensue. The dream could've died in a normal way, without all of these extra external conflicts. Still, see it for the clear portrait of the transformative experience that movie theaters offer. 

Final score: 3 out of 5