“Like a Beetle on Its Back”: Vicky Krieps on Corsage

Vicky Krieps Interview Corsage
December 20th 2022

There are few actresses who embrace the complex layers of femininity in their roles so completely as Vicky Krieps. Krieps, in her breakout role of Alma Elson in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017), struck audiences with her charm and subtle domination of her male counterpart, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), microdosing him daily with poisonous mushroom omelets. Who was this bold new actress with the ambiguous accent?

Several years later, Mia Hansen Løve’s Bergman Island (2021) brought Krieps back into the international spotlight, this time as a filmmaker, the less established partner of Tim Roth’s celebrated auteur, who she gradually outpaces and outgrows in the course of the film.

Krieps continues to come into her own. In the past two years, she has held leading roles in several European films, including Mathieu Amalric’s Hold Me Tight (2021), Emily Atef’s More than Ever (2022), and Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage (2022)—all in different languages (Krieps speaks French, German, English, her native Luxembourgish, and after Corsage, a bit of Hungarian.)

In Corsage, Krieps portrays a fictionalized version of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Deemed irrelevant after turning forty, “Sissi” chafes against the expectations of the Austrian royal court, frequently absconding to Hungary and elsewhere in pursuit of companionship and reprieve. Krieps pulls the Empress out of the history books and into the modern-day conversation, encouraging her audience to question the meaning of female rebellion, even that which can be self-destructive.

Elegant and ephemeral as the roles she plays on screen, Krieps speaks with a dreamy poeticism. The refreshingly authentic je m’en fous actress is just beginning to show the world who she is.

Amy Omar: When I saw Corsage I was again so impressed by your multilingualism and your ability to seamlessly take on such strong roles in these various languages. How do you think the languages the role requires impact your performance? Did you find that Elisabeth who speaks French differs from Elisabeth who speaks German?

Vicky Krieps: The mood is different in each language. When I speak German, it is grave—funny that I’m describing German with a French word. I’m harsher in German; there is a gravity. French is lighter, more emotional. English is the most neutral, the most open of the three languages.

All of the languages spoken together in Corsage made it possible to feel like you were dancing. I could sneak in and out of one language and dance with that energy.

AO: I’m sure this type of fluidity helps with Elisabeth’s perpetual role-playing.

VK: Yes, exactly. It was one of the ways Elisabeth could escape. She could sneak in and out of one language. In language she could choose to become silent or to speak. If I’m going to be forced to sit at the table, I will use silence to escape. Language was used as a way to escape and to be different people, but it was also a way to feed her brain. At that time, women were not allowed to study, so Elisebeth had very limited ways to feed her intellectual soul. I think she was quite intelligent and speaking all of these languages helped feed her mind.

AO: You had to learn Hungarian for this role, correct?

VK: Learning Hungarian was one of many reasons why this was such a challenging film to make. I would spend my days learning gymnastics, riding horses, swimming in ice-cold water, and then taking Hungarian lessons. I felt like my brain was going to explode. Hungarian is a very complicated language; it has elements of Turkish and Slovenian—nothing that I was familiar with.

AO: You actually proposed the idea of making this film to Marie Kreutzer. What was the process of working with Marie to create this role together from conception, rather than coming in after the script was locked?

VK: We didn’t even have to talk about it. We didn’t have to talk about who this woman would be and how we would want to do it. It was so clear that we wanted the same because we feel the same, because in a way we are the same. That we could just work almost blindfolded and using telepathy more than anything.

AO: What was the day-to-day shooting like?

VK: Making this movie was so hard. We were mostly just focused on surviving and getting it done. Our days would start at 5 in the morning and it was so cold and difficult and dark. And the corset was so painful. It took all my energy. I felt like I was constantly running against the wind.

We had to reconstruct the set with so many people every day. And all of this we had to do with a European budget, which means we don’t have studios, we don’t have everything we need to have. We had to get so many scenes done in one day—sometimes twelve hours. The day would start, we would get in the pool and swim until the lights went off. After, we would be so tired we would just fall into bed.

But sometimes Marie and I would share a glass of wine in the evening. I don’t know, this woman [Elisabeth] was so nerve-racking—sometimes me and Marie would be devastated in the evening! We would look at each other and say, “Oh my god, what are we doing here? How are we ever going to make this movie?” Sometimes we would just have to sit down and have a glass of red wine to ground ourselves.

Vicky Krieps Interview Corsage
Vicky Krieps as Empress Elizabeth of Austria in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage

AO: I’m sure, in a way, you were also haunted by Elisabeth because you are embodying a real person.

VK: Yes, that’s very true. This one was very hard to let go. Especially because the corset drained my body. It drained my psyche so much that when I finished my days I was still sad. I was so overly sad that all these women had lived this for real. It’s something I had no clue of how painful it was until I wore it consecutively for two months. I had no idea of how symbolic it was, of how much it imprisons your body, of how much it weakens you.

You constantly feel like a beetle on its back. When I was wearing the corset— Let’s say I had to lie on the carpet, like I had to in the scene with my cousin when teaching him how to faint. In order for me to get back on my feet, I had to roll on my side, lay on my belly, push back into all fours and then get on my feet because I couldn’t bend my belly. You are like a puppet. You cannot run, you cannot move, you cannot lift your arms properly. You’re just sitting there and wanting to freak out, but you’re not allowed.

AO: That’s awful. I did not realize how immobilizing a corset is.

VK: What it does is that it breaks you into two parts and makes you unable to move, even while sitting and standing up. We don’t realize that in everything we do we use our abdominal muscles. These dresses were so tight that you could lift your arm but only halfway. And the shoes: they aren’t super high, but high enough to make it even more complicated.

AO: These clothes are not only physically restraining but also emotionally symbolic. These objects hold so much weight.

VK: It is a proper torture instrument. I don’t even mean to say that I don’t get it, aesthetic-wise. I get it, and yes, it can be totally beautiful. But to me, it’s not beautiful enough for the price you have to pay. And if we wear it, we wear it one night to look impressive, but these women were forced to wear it almost all the time. It was so unfair.

AO: I admired how Elisabeth took on rebellious behavior as she grew older. I know there were certain acts that were historically documented, like her smoking a cigarette or cutting her hair short. Were there other personality traits that you elaborated or took creative liberties with?

VK: Making this movie also came from a personal place of being tired and fed up with having to prove myself as an actress. Having to fit into a certain image people have of me. I’m an actress so I’m supposed to care a lot about how I look—actually, I don’t. I don’t care how I look and I don’t care how you like it. Or if you don’t like it, you don’t like it—I don’t care, leave me alone. There was something in me wanting to rebel against this. A lot of my acting is also my personal rebellion of what I’m supposed to do: how I’m supposed to look nice, to be beautiful and act well.

When playing Sissi, I was constantly pushing the boundary of how I am supposed to do it versus not. What if I stick out my tongue or show you the middle finger? Even though I know this is what they were not [historically] doing. I did it just because I can.

Even Romy Schneider fell into this trap in Sissi (1955). She was imprisoned in having to play the beautiful version of Sissi, and afterwards it was so hard for her to play different roles. Her face was covered in makeup all throughout her career, even though she was one of the first real authentic actresses I ever saw. But for whatever reason, her face is full of makeup! Which makes no sense—the woman was beautiful the way she was. But she was an actress, so apparently that’s what you do.

So when it was my turn to play Sissi, I did not want to wear any makeup. I did this for all of these women who couldn’t say no, who were not able to move and just wanted to move.

AO: That is one of the aspects that sets this film apart from other period pieces. You took on your own version of Elisabeth and you made it modern. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s historically accurate; it’s about the symbolism of the words and actions.

VK: Yes, exactly. I put my fist down and said what I wanted to say. Even if they weren’t saying or doing these things at that time, I did it. If I wanted to say “asshole” I said “asshole.”

AO: For some actors, the lines can be blurred between their on- versus off-screen personae. You’ve mentioned that you bring a lot of who you are naturally into your roles, but conversely have any of these roles influenced yourself off screen?

VK: I wouldn’t say that roles have influenced me, but I have grown with every role. Grown to be a little bolder, who I want to be. With every role I try to get closer to my personal artistic voice and to not listen to what other people say or think and really, truly make it my own exploration of what I find interesting to talk about in women, in society, in marriage, and in motherhood. I try to make it an honest conversation rather than do what I think people would like to see or how would it be best. How can I do my homework best? Rather, I’m going to do the opposite. I’m not going to do my homework. I’m going to truly take the risk of failing as an artist but trying to find something new. And I think with every movie I get a little more courageous.

AO: I admire your boldness. This all really rings true in Corsage.

VK: Something I would like to add is that I am super surprised at how the movie has been received. I really didn’t think it would work. It felt like a prank I was playing. I really needed and wanted to do it that way, for all of these women. But at the same time I thought, “Oh God, there are going to be so many people mad at me—why is she doing that?

Corsage opens December 23 at IFC Center .