Another portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria is enlivened by Sandra Hüller as her lady-in-waiting

Sisi & I

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘Sisi & I’

Dir: Frauke Finsterwalder. Germany, Switzerland, Austria. 2023. 132mins

Capricious, charming, cruel and impulsive – seen through most eyes, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (or Sisi as she was known) would seem like a narcissistic nightmare. But devoted Countess Irma Grafin von Sztaray (Sandra Hüller), lady-in-waiting to the Empress (Susanne Wolff) in the four years before her death in 1898, lives for the moments of warmth in the orbit of a woman who famously blows hot and cold. Like Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, which also explores the later years of Sisi’s life, the film flirts with anachronisms in soundtrack and costume choices. But there the similarities end. Frauke Finsterwalder’s take on the Empress is a lavish production favouring an accessibly middlebrow, at times almost soapy, approach. 

 A lavish production favouring an accessibly middlebrow, at times almost soapy, approach

That decision is unlikely to hurt the commercial prospects of the film following its premiere in Berlin’s Panorama, certainly with more mainstream-skewed German-language territories where the fascination with Sisi endures (she is also the subject of a recent German-language television series). It’s perhaps unfortunate that the film comes so hot on the heels of Corsage: comparisons are inevitable, and Sisi & I lacks the bold vision, rebellious spirit and intellectual focus of Kreutzer’s subversive, spiky picture. In terms of the dynamic at its core (if not the comedy and profanity) it has perhaps more in common with The Favourite.

A key asset is Hüller, reuniting with Finsterwalder following 2013’s Finsterworld. She relishes the part of Irma who, at the start of the film, is a socially maladroit klutz. Having rejected marriage (she’s repulsed by male body hair) and a convent, employment within the Austro-Hungarian court is her only remaining option. Her flouncy Austrian fashions are always stained – with blood following a run-in with her overbearing mother, with vomit after a bout of sea-sickness en route to meet the Empress in Corfu. (Malta acts as a stand in for the Greek island, with other locations including Lucerne and Vienna.) But life with Sisi will change a woman. 

Drawn in by the dangled lure of friendship, Irma bows to the will of the Empress in all things, curbing her healthy appetite to match Sisi’s obsessively restricted one and parting with her frou-frou ribbons and Viennese lace to adopt Sisi’s preferred style. Here, costume designer Tanja Hausner excels, with lots of chic, austere shapes and colour blocking. It’s not historically accurate, necessarily, but it captures the unconventional spirit of the Empress and, by matching and clashing with Sisi’s clothing choices, there’s a visual shorthand that gives a clue as to each character’s status within the inner circle at any given time.

Equally anachronistic but not as successful is the femme-pop soundtrack which kicks off with the intriguing choice of a track by Portishead but, later on, with songs like Nico’s ’You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone’, can seem rather too on the nose. These music choices do little to smooth out what can be a somewhat uneven tonal approach. Caustic jealousies and machinations give way to something which feels like Lady Chatterley by way of Sunday night TV. Sisi’s flirtation with a handsome stable worker is a distinctly wobbly moment for a film which, while it offers few surprises, at least carries itself with a regal dignity for the most part.

Production company: Walker+Worm Film

International sales: The Match Factory

Producers: Philipp Worm, Tobias Walker

Screenplay: Frauke Finsterwalder, Christian Kracht

Cinematography: Thomas W. Kiennast

Production design: Katharina Woppermann

Editing: Andreas Menn

Main cast: Sandra Hüller, Susanne Wolff, Georg Friedrich, Stefan Kurt, Sophie Hutter