Sisi & I (Sisi & Ich) Review – A Radical Portrayal of The Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s Life

Sisi & I will be playing at the German Film Festival all through May 2023 at your local Palace Cinemas.

The Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s life is well documented, scrutinised, and mourned over. A life that contained countless tragedies – whether it be murder-suicide, accidental fire, infant death, or ultimately an ill-fated assassination. What the history books leave out is the perspective of the lauded Sisi’s lady-in-waiting: Irma Sztáray. Taking a revisionist and fantastical point of view, German director Frauke Finsterwalder flips the script with Sisi & I, a fictional retelling of the later years of the Empress’ life, but through the eyes of Countess Irma (Sandra Hüller).

When Irma’s terse and dominating mother Countess Maria (Sibylle Canonica) decides her daughter needs to find a suitable station and purpose, Irma finds herself sent to a Greek commune. A luscious hideaway where men are but a rare occurrence, the playful Empress (Susanne Wolff) decides that once she meets Irma – the only goal is to be free of boredom. What begins as a feminine escape where two women relish in the freedom away from male meddling, Sisi’s dominating presence proves both enticing for Irma, but also destructive.

The main draw card to Sisi & I is the radical portrayal of Elisabeth’s life – someone who Finsterwalder claims was “simply born a century too early.” Seeking liberation from judgement, court and a failing marriage, Sisi’s modern prospects ignite against a darkly comedic script. The film does a passable job at portraying a fantasy where the boiling passions erupt between these two women, however its ultimate attempt to balance historical drama with dark comedy never fully infuses with enough clarity. While moments of true levity do exist in the screenplay, they exist sporadically inside many vignetted set-pieces of the Empress’ both joyous and torturous travels.

The punk-rock infusions of soundtrack prove quite jarring to the tone of the film, it never settles between being a gritty historical think-piece – or a wannabe-rebellious-experimental exposé where princesses end up jamming in a mosh pit. While the latter is a hilariously enticing prospect, it doesn’t particularly work when these musical outbursts are mundanely juxtaposed to 1800’s European countryside. Some of it does work thanks to its revisionist foundation – it just comes at the expense of historical immersion.

While recent depictions like Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage (2022) and Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021) have attempted to humanise a Princess fighting against a suffocating and rigid aristocracy, Sisi & I makes the interesting choice to have Elisabeth more of a vessel for the story and less of an actual character. This stylistic choice may be advantageous to the theme of detachment, but it ultimately leaves the film feeling slightly too clinical in how they observe the unfolding events. The chemistry between the two leads is on show, but you can’t help but feel a certain distance while watching them.

Sandra Hüller absolutely absorbs the role as Irma, delivering a soulful performance that expresses the insistent desire to please and follow her Empress. There is a strong undercurrent of queer suppression and longing that exists within these women, and Hüller perfectly fluctuates between bottling and letting loose those feelings at the right moment. The revisionist angle to the film widens the perspective for these ideas to be expressed, but the direction feels slightly too fractured to let them percolate with enough impact. In Aristotelian society power imbalances will always exist – film is a powerful vessel to explore this. The question remains, do all queer relationships within these spaces have to be built on grooming tactics, pining, and repression?

Sisi & I does an admirable job at creating a costume drama that sizzles under the heat of its fantasy revisions, but its overall pace and messaging hurt its lasting impact. At 132 minutes (that was inflated from an original 110), it’s a little too long, but being anchored by a rousing performance from Sandra Hüller – it’s well worth the price of admission.

Director: Frauke Finsterwalder

Cast: Susanne Wolff, Sandra Hüller, Anthony Calf

Writers: Frauke Finsterwalder, Christian Kracht

Kahn Duncan

Kahn is a passionate Melbourne based film lover who looks to film as a tool for both entertainment, education, but also feeling. Attempts to watch at least one feature film a day, but unfortunately life gets in the way sometimes. Prospective Graduate of Media Communications (Screen Studies) and Business (Marketing) at Monash University.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!