At the tail end of the 1800s, the clumsy and unrefined Countess Irma Sztáray (Sandra Hüller) stands at a crossroads.
The 42-year-old is forced by her mother to become a lady in waiting to the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Susanne Wolff). Irma‘s mother warns that when Elisabeth (or ‘Sisi’) has her gaze upon you, it is like all the light of the world is turned on. But that which can be turned on can also be turned off.
From the moment Irma arrives at Sisi‘s woman only commune in Greece, the Royal’s bizarre eccentricities are laid bare. Sisi has Irma and her other handmaidens perform acts of athleticism, forces strict diets upon them, as well as the consumption of various daily narcotics. Sisi has complete freedom in this exile from her duties to the Austria-Hungarian Court and from her husband Emperor Franz Joseph (Markus Schleinzer). Irma soon falls under Sisi‘s spell like so many others have and the two form a close bond. As the outside world continues to close in around them, the two women travel a path which will join them together forever.
Director Frauke Finsterwalder wrote this film along with her best-selling author husband Christian Kracht. What the two have set out to create is a film which looks at the true-life Empress in a different way, seeking to dispel some of the mythos surrounding the woman which has built up over the one and a quarter century since her assassination in 1898. But also, to show this tragic figure as a very modern woman perhaps just born in the wrong era of history.
I will admit that I personally was uneducated on Empress Elisabeth. Whether it be the true historical figure or the romanticised Sisi of the stage and silver screen. Even a cursory glance over her biography is enough to inform an audience at least somewhat of her tragic story which I would highly recommend.
I say this up front because I feel something is lost viewing this film without a context which Finsterwalder omits. To the uninformed viewer, Sisi comes off not too different to a full-grown spoiled brat granted too much power. Buy in fact this story is set at a point in time after she had faced many years of personal hardships which led to her becoming a much more reclusive peculiar character.
The relationship which grows between Sisi and Irma is an interesting one which is more akin to a famous pop star grooming a young fan. As Sisi begins to directly influence Irma in a negative way, it can be a little hard to see what makes her so magnetic. However, Hüller and Wolff share a chemistry together which helps bridge that personal connection the script lacks. The film is brave in the matter-of-fact way it portrays Irma’s reliance on this toxic friendship and it affects her growing eating disorders.
Costume design by Tanja Hausner shifts between both the formal aristocracy of the period but also the much more unrestrained. Sisi is fleeing from the stuffiness of high society and a large part of this includes her complete rejection of their tight over the top clothing.
Keeping with the untraditional take on the subject matter is the film’s soundtrack. Featuring songs from exclusively female artists. the soundtrack includes interesting uses of rock, pop, alternative and even folk music that you wouldn’t expect to hear in a period film. I can’t say that it always works but it harkens back to other films like Sofia Copola‘s Marie Antoinette in its more modern slant on a classic story.
Sisi & I is an at times hard to watch story about an extremely parasocial relationship between two women. From the beginning, Irma is told this friendship is a largely one-sided affair and yet it is still heartbreaking watching it play out. Two stellar performances from Hüller and Wolff elevate what is both a film that tears down fake history while incorporating a few twists of its own.
Sisi & I is playing part of the 2023 German Film Festival.
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