Sisi & I


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Sisi And I
"Sisi & I weaves a tapestry of finely observed moments with the sparkling duo of Wolff and Hüller at the top of their game." | Photo: courtesy of Inside Out

“Contempt returns to the sender, and that is how it is,” Catherine Breillat wrote in her essay on Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust And Tinsel.

Frauke Finsterwalder’s razor-sharp and exquisitely stylish Sisi & I (with Tanja Hausner’s eminently tempting and chronology defying costumes), stars the glorious combination of Susanne Wolff (Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx) as Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, with Sandra Hüller (Oscar-nominated for Justine Triet’s Oscar-winning Anatomy Of A Fall, Jonathan Glazer’s multiple Oscar-winning The Zone Of Interest, Maren Ade’s Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann) as Irma Countess of Sztáray, her lady-in-waiting. The extraordinary supporting cast includes the two protagonists’ mothers, Sibylle Canonica as Marie Countess of Sztáray and Angela Winkler (Volker Schlöndorff’s Oscar-winning The Tin Drum) as Ludovika of Bavaria, plus Georg Friedrich (Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini) as Sisi’s playful cousin, Archduke Viktor of Austria. Tom Rhys Harries, Stefan Kurt, Sophie Hutter, Maresi Riegner, Annette Badland, Johanna Wokalek, and Markus Schleinzer round out the outstanding ensemble.

Ernst Marischka’s series of Sissi films in the 1950s, starring Romy Schneider, had been a post-war diversion that glorified a deceptively perfect world of the Hapsburg monarchy. The recent deluge of Sisi depictions went the route of elaborate TV series biopic fare, with period costumes and 21st century winks, or as Marie Kreutzer did with Corsage, a rescue mission of sorts, where Vicky Krieps as the beloved Empress gets to defiantly voice what she couldn’t in the 19th century. Finsterwalder (screenplay co-written with Christian Kracht, her collaborator on Finsterworld), regally delves into the subtleties of friendship, the casual cruelties in servitude, aspects of longing, fame, and privacy that remain pressingly relevant today. More than Sisi as artifact, we watch someone who can look back at you in the mirror.

Over the title sequence, accompanied by Portishead’s Wandering Star, we hear Irma in voice-over: ”Licht an. Licht aus.” Lights on. Lights off. It brings to mind Freud’s fort-da game, that occurs when a toddler begins to explore power dynamics with the surrounding world and the shifts of being favoured and expelled, rewarded and punished, inform the structural seesaw movement of the film.

Of course, as all good fairy tales tell, it helps when very real concerns and fears come presented in a make-believe world of fabulous foreign lands and sublime garments. Sisi & I has plenty of both. The gorgeous outfits, some inspired by Valentino fashions from the 1960s and ’70s, as the director told me, are notably wearable, and movement-friendly at a time when corsets strangled women’s organs. But this Sisi (and the real one) belong to an upper stratosphere, where the restrictions of “proper” society could easily be circumvented.

The story begins with a job interview for Irma (Hüller), who is 42 and happily unmarried (“With men I always have to think about tablecloths” is one of her great, absurdly mysterious statements). Her mother (Canonica) seizes on the opportunity to finally get rid of her. As though she were a horse or a show poodle, Irma is being examined by Sisi’s former confidante, Countess Marie Festetics (Wokalek), whom she is about to replace. It is an exquisite scene where humiliation taints all involved. With the considerable dirt under her fingernails removed (in closeup) and bundled up in puffy-sleeved embroidery, Irma is weighed and tested, all nicely noted down, before being sent off to Korfu, where Sisi (Wolff) currently resides with her small entourage in an enchanted overgrown villa that also houses birds, hounds, tortoises and lizards.

With the help of production designer Katharina Wöppermann and cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast, Finsterwalder constructs a paradise for our eyes to wander and dream and experience with Irma what life in the shadow of the most admired woman of her time holds in store. First the testing continues with a totally exhausted Irma, arriving via rowboat, having to show her jumping skills, in heeled ankle boots and without even a sip of water after the long journey from Vienna. The equestrian style mini obstacle course in the garden and the screwball gym class antics are performed by Hüller with the most incredible slapstick timing.

Sisi is amused and the pendulum she asks for advice says “maybe,” so Irma can stay. Her training has already begun. There is laxative tea and little to eat, because Sisi has two house rules: “No fat people and no men.” Count Berzeviczy (Kurt) stands right beside her, but he is a mere servant, and like Iron Heinrich in The Frog King, the faithfulness is a given and doesn’t count. The other two employees, Fritzi (Hutter) and Marie (Riegner) giggle and snicker as a united front, because they know the routines and the newcomer doesn’t.

Irma begins to gain a foothold in the new world at first via her education. She catches Fritzi mispronouncing Japan, and later during a walk with the Empress is able to finish the words of a poem by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, which laments limitations placed on women. As in The Goose Girl, collected by the Brothers Grimm, there is only a small window of time when a girl can safely loosen her hair to let it blow in the wind. The real Sisi, famous for her very long luscious locks, may very well have known the poem and the fictional one is happy to bond with Irma for a while. The lights are on.

Cracks in Arcadia start to show when Irma, awakened by strange noises, sees through a window how Sisi in the kitchen devours unholy masses of food like an ogre, a bulimic ritual that makes Irma discard some of the slimming potions she was given. Sisi & I weaves a tapestry of finely observed moments with the sparkling duo of Wolff and Hüller at the top of their game. We can smell the butter on Irma’s breath and learn viscerally that lizards can never be kept imprisoned. Glances and glimpses accompany the unsaid. There are hikes and horseback riding to the cliffs and juvenile games that are familiar to anyone who has ever been young beyond their age.

Sleeping Beauty is the film’s shadow narrative, complete with its warning to beware of sharp objects. During a thunderstorm, Sisi under the sheets tells Irma the tale of a little girl from Bavaria, who was free and barefoot and who one day during a storm hid under the roots of a tree. An old hag crawled by and told her: Beware of needles! Back and forth in time we go because the tales of old are as present as they always were. King Ludwig via Ouija board concurs with the warning for Sisi. The “sharp piece of glass in the heart,” Irma describes at the very start, like Hans Christian Andersen’s broken mirror owned by the Devil, stabs those who care to care to this very day.

Needles abound. There is a misshapen royal tattoo and a trip to Algiers stabs a significant wound. Some pricks hurt more than others. Sisi is being summoned back to court and Franz-Josef (Schleinzer) claims his wife with force. But, like the agile lizard she is, she escapes with Irma (in the most elegant prison stripes ever) for a while. There is a trip to England, an audience with Queen Victoria (Badland), and a fling with a young man, Smythe (Rhys Harries), who is attractive because he is proud.

Time does not stand still, and a beautifully shot scene that mirrors Visconti’s Death In Venice, shows Victor putting hair paint and lipstick on Sisi’s tired face, which resembles a death mask. Life has taken its toll on her, Nico sings Afraid on the soundtrack, and Susanne Wolff’s splendid performance, so unlike the tomboyish typecasting of many previous roles, exposes all the strain it must have taken to keep up royal appearances at the time while holding dear some standards of your own. There is a tenderness in cousin Victor that Dirk Bogarde’s Aschenbach could only dream of - plus a puppy into the bargain. Love and justice are two different things.

This is a film of two nosebleeds and a lot of exercise. It ends with counting forwards and moving backwards. The music selection (all sung by women, including Sandra Hüller’s rendition of Marc Bolan’s Cosmic Dancer over the end credits) is eclectic and distinctly well placed and brims with a longing for something fleeting and maybe long forgotten. Can cruelty be overcome with beauty, with rigor, with pride? A particularly poignant scene has Sisi and Irma and both their mothers together for a lunch of goulash. The way Angela Winkler (who marked forever how cinema sees eels in The Tin Drum) feeds the very adult Empress of Austria-Hungary as though she were a reluctant baby bird, is spectacular in what it connotes about nourishment, mothering, and the lack thereof.

Sisi & I, more than any other of the recent takes on her, makes you reflect on the perils of admiration and how bloody tough it can be to keep hold of your self-esteem.

Reviewed on: 02 Jul 2024
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In this wild reinterpretation of the “Sisi” myth, the focus is on Austrian Empress Elisabeth’s close friendship with her last lady-in-waiting, Irma Countess von Sztáray, who falls in love with the charismatic Sisi and is captivated by her modern ideas.

Director: Frauke Finsterwalder

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

Year: 2023

Runtime: 132 minutes

Country: Germany, Switzerland, Austria


BIFF 2023
IO 2023

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