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Apparently many of you have written in to ask if we’ll be reviewing The Empress (2022), Netflix’s offering amongst a spate of Empress Elisabeth of Austria/Sissi films and TV series out right about now. And because enough of you have said the costumes are terrible, and because Trystan is a big meanie, she suggested I go ahead and recap this for Snark Week instead of doing my usual thing of asking you what I should review. Now, I already hate mid-19th century (the death of fashion), although thankfully this is set in Europe and not some dusty American small town, but just know that I am cursing you as I watch/write this!
Make sure you’ve read my recap of episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, and episode 4!
We start with the Revolutionary Lady-in-Waiting back in her grubby clothes, flagging down a coach. She distracts the lady inside while her Revolutionary Boyfriend grabs and kills her. She dresses in the lady’s clothes, which actually look shockingly 1850s, and then joins her Revolutionary Boyfriend in “for the people”-ing — but when his back is turned, she closes the lady’s eyes. Obviously, this is the real countess whose identity Revolutionary Lady-in-Waiting has stolen.
Elisabeth wanders the palace grounds at night in a white nightgown and short, Asian-styled jackety-robe thing. She ends up in a tree, sketching. Revolutionary Lady-in-Waiting comes out to join her in a Middle Eastern-style jacket/shawl combo. They have a smoke and a bond, and when a guard hears something, Revolutionary Lady-in-Waiting distracts him and gets him to leave.
Elisabeth returns to the palace only to find Franz has already left. He’s sending the troops out to war and gives a decently heartfelt speech.
There’s been lots of unrest in Vienna since the wedding (side note, I forgot to mention the police did a raid on the wedding night that turned pretty brutal). Elisabeth is being sent out and about to “show herself” and hopefully mollify the people. She’s dressed in a big yellow crinoline and a blue corset with no chemise underneath. Franz’s Mom comes in and lectures her, and provides us with a stereotypical corset-yanking scene complete with loud yanking Foley effects. Elisabeth is stressed and throws up the morning’s raw egg. No one gets her except Revolutionary Lady-in-Waiting.
Elisabeth goes to see Franz before leaving, wearing what is essentially a 1950s swing jacket and blouse. Franz is stressed because Oily Banker Son has cut off his railway money (because Franz mobilized the troops).
Maximilian has a tender moment with a ring that has some hair in it while wearing reasonably period undies. His just-woken-up prostitute-of-the-day gets out of him that it belonged to a fiancée who died. He orders out the prostitute and practices speeches, accepting the emperorship in the mirror.
The council meets and talks about troops and railways. Franz’s Mom is happy Franz is finally getting hardline with the Russians. She’s dressed in an overly modern scrollwork skirt and blouse of various laces.
Elisabeth and Franz’s youngest brother Luzi head out to an iron foundry. Elisabeth legit wears a 1950s pillbox hat. Elisabeth jokes about being scared of the matron, who is in a very menswear-styled outfit as usual. We get a closeup of Elisabeth’s shoes as she gets out of the carriage, and they’re impressively accurate for the period!
Elisabeth meets the foundry workers who are dirty and sad and have bloody hands. Earlier in the episode, we’d seen some very poor and dirty foundry workers, a 20-something brother and 10-something younger sister, who clearly have very little. Elisabeth is moved by the sad workers and insists on going into the foundry. There she meets the young girl who has shoes with giant holes in them, among other problems. Elisabeth takes off her shoes and gives them to the girl, prompting the matron to have a heart attack and order the police chief to carry Elisabeth out to the carriage. The watching crowd are pissed that they don’t get to see Elisabeth and think she’s spoiled (she’s protesting the whole way), and a riot ensues. The day is cut short, and Elisabeth returns to the palace.
The Suspicious Lady-in-Waiting rummages around the Revolutionary Lady-in-Waiting’s room, trying to find something incriminating. She finds some clothes with blood on them. Revolutionary LiW sees Suspicious LiW leaving her room, but before she can do anything, Revolutionary LiW is interrupted by Franz’s super-progressive advisor who has the hots for her and wants to go for a walk. She agrees.
Maximilian is full steam ahead with the deposing his brother/taking over as emperor plan. He and his compatriots agree he needs the support of the church, army, and his mother. He tries to chat up the bishop who rebuffs him.
Ex-Floozy comes to visit Franz dressed like a fucking crazy chicken. She’s going to marry Oily Banker Son. Franz wants her to help him get his loan back. She makes Franz beg for it and agrees but says he has to return the favor at some point. She kisses Franz, and at first he’s neutral but then he gives in to it.
Elisabeth is pissed about the whole foundry incident. If the matron had just let her visit with the people, none of this would have happened. Matron is pissed because Elisabeth didn’t follow the rules. She wants Elisabeth to at least put some shoes on. Elisabeth throws the shoes away, rips off her jackety/cape thing, and storms into her bedroom. Franz comes in and the two fight about how Elisabeth won’t follow the rules. Elisabeth hilariously throws fruit at him, and they end up shagging.
Elisabeth can’t sleep yet again. She wanders the palace in a full robe made of embroidered silk. She runs into Maximilian, and he once again asks her to run away with him. She asks what he would do if she said yes.
Elisabeth goes to see Revolutionary Lady-in-Waiting, who is the only one who gets her. The two bond.
Elisabeth is PARTYING IT UP, straight bad-girl style, with Maximilian. She’s wearing a fishnet top under a corset which would give some EXCELLENTLY patterned welts. I love that Maximilian seems to think a resume of prostitutes and cocaine makes him a better choice to be emperor? They’re drinking and smoking and crashing around.
Franz’s Mom is praying. Her silk taffeta bodice is vaguely Edwardian; her skirt is modern ballgown nonsense.
Elisabeth stumbles drunkenly into the breakfast room to join Franz. Apparently this has been going on for a while.
Franz has a gift for Elisabeth. It’s a super spirited horse. Elisabeth has changed into a 1970s-at-the-oldest rayon-maybe-silk-blend blouse that LITERALLY DOESN’T FIT.
Suspicious LiW tries to tattle on Revolutionary LiW, but Elisabeth is hearing none of it.
Franz’s Mom lectures Franz about something, I don’t remember.
Franz’s Mom summons Elisabeth to the church. Mom tells a sad story about her daughter who died young and how the doctors bled her a ton and the daughter was traumatized, and all Mom could do was hold her but she died anyway. Somehow this transitions into “This isn’t working out.” Maybe they could have, ya know, vetted Elisabeth some before Franz popped the question? Anyway, Franz’s Mom tells Elisabeth she has two choices: either they say she’s ill, she retires to Bavaria, the marriage is annulled; or she stays in the palace locked in a room with only the matron. Franz’s Mom implies that Franz knows and is on board with this plan.
Franz’s Mom tells the matron about her plans for Elisabeth. Matron is wearing a black quilted velvet bodice with wide oversleeves. Matron thinks it’s a good idea, but Franz’s Mom cuts off the matron to tell her she failed. Either the matron will be locked up with Elisabeth, or she’ll go to Bavaria with her, but her role as Franz’s Mom’s lady is done, and she’s being replaced by another chick. The matron is super sad and begs for her position, but Franz’s Mom is having none of it.
Maximilian goes to his/Franz’s Mom to try to get her support for him taking over as emperor. He says he has the support of the church now. Mom is noncommittal.
Elisabeth tries to see Franz, but he won’t see her. She gets woozy and goes back to her room, where Revolutionary LiW helps her figure out she’s pregnant.
Elisabeth goes to tell Franz the good news, but things get sidetracked by him being mad she won’t behave and her being mad he expects her to “turn off her brain” (maybe she could have thought about what the whole empress job entailed before saying yes?). Franz didn’t actually know about his mom’s orders, but he thinks it’s a good idea. Elisabeth says fine, I’ll leave then … without telling Franz she’s pregnant. It’s an excellent fuck you.
Elisabeth packs to leave. Throughout this episode, commoners have been gathering outside the gates. There’s lots of tension between will Franz stop Elisabeth leaving, will Elisabeth really leave, what will Franz/Franz’s Mom/the soldiers do about the growing mob. Elisabeth leaves the palace in a weird batik dress and gold-embroidered capelet.
At some point, Revolutionary LiW meets with her Revolutionary Boyfriend and tells him fine, go ahead and kill them all. He sneaks into the palace dressed in disguise in a good hat, digs up a knife that’s been buried, and heads towards the palace, presumably to kill Franz and who knows who else. But the soldiers have been tipped off; it’s implied by Revolutionary LiW. He gets shot. Revolutionary LiW knows what the gun noises mean and is sad but resigned.
One of the other Ladies-in-Waiting comes to visit Revolutionary LiW. She lets slip that Suspicious LiW found a photograph of Revolutionary LiW as a nursemaid to the family she’s pretending to belong to. Revolutionary LiW and Suspicious LiW have an argument that ends with Revolutionary LiW pushing Suspicious LiW over a balcony to her death.
When she was packing, Elisabeth mentions to a servant to make sure to give a specific dress to Franz’s youngest brother, who earlier we saw having fun with mom’s jewelry. Quick Wikipedia check and yep, Archduke Ludwig Viktor will grow up to be gay, although I don’t know whether he dressed in women’s clothes.
At some point, Franz’s Mom tells Maximilian he’s too weak to be emperor. All the men in her family are, including her husband, Franz, and Maximilian too. Palace officials come to take him away.
At first the palace guards won’t let Elisabeth out the front gates, but she gets out of the carriage and insists. She walks out among the crowd and has a Marie Antoinette moment, curtsying to them, but does better than Marie Antoinette in holding hands and connecting with the people. Back at the palace, Franz’s Mom asks what’s going on and someone tells her that Elisabeth has told the people she’s pregnant. Franz’s Mom thinks that’s a good thing. Franz runs across the grounds and joins Elisabeth with the crowd.
Things end suspensefully right there! I am thrilled to be done with this trainwreck that doesn’t know which era it’s supposed to be set in! I hate you all for making me watch this! There’s going to be a season 2, and all I have to say is, NOT IT.
I’m not watching season 2 either. This show flunked history in every episode and costumes failed too.
OK, so now I know how a random revolutionary became a lady in waiting to the Empress, but I still don’t see how she pulled it off. Impersonating a particular Austrian aristocrat in, I don’t know, India among the Brits, maybe. But, you know, these people were not hermits. They were from well-known families, they were all related to each other and they hung out at court quite often.
Yup. Aristocracies are like small towns, everybody knows everybody else’s business and who’s related to whom.
I have the impression that period film and series are getting worse and worse with time. Contemporary period productions have not only shitty costumes, but mess up timelines and show completely anachronistic behaviours of their protagonists (I can’t forget the picture of Katherine of Aragon in a “pregnancy armour” leading a battle …). I’m not saying that period films in the past were flawless, but with time one could expect improvement and not deterioration.
I know what you mean about things getting worse.
It used to be that there was at least a reasonable attempt to capture the period accurately, but with some concessions to current popular taste, or to the actress’ image as promoted by the studio, or to censorship dictates– most of which seemed to revolve around how boobs were being put on display.
And sometimes you even had things like somebody deciding PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1940) had to be time-shifted, because the costuming for the correct period “wasn’t sumptuous enough”– or didn’t look good on Greer Garson, depending on who’s telling it.
(OTOH, Thackeray did the same thing with his illustrations for the original edition of his VANITY FAIR, because he thought the actual period costumes were ridiculous and ugly.)
But now, you’ve got this trend towards making “relatable” costumes that wind up being hideous crap no one would want to wear in ANY period. Even though this is always couched as a need to accommodate modern audiences, it’s way too often just an excuse for slapping together things out of prom dresses and sari fabrics.
And worst of all is when you see a designer express outright contempt for accurate period clothing, as is shown in the article about the costumes for THE EMPRESS. (If you think the period is that bad, just don’t take the damn job!)
I’ve got a strong suspicion that anything in this crappy series that looked reasonably accurate or well-made was a rental– and not the work of this designer– given how ridiculous (and often hideous) most of the costumes were.
In my book, they fall smack in the middle between Eiko Ishioka’s costumes for BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and Andy Milligan’s sewn-with-a-stapler costumes for his no-budget “period” horror movies in the ’60s and ’70s.
BTW– even though they’re considered to be among the worst films ever made, Andy Milligan’s oeuvre might be worthy of a future Snark Week or Halloween entry, since they’re largely misbegotten “period films” all costumed by the director himself.
A lot of his stuff is out there on video, and there are at least two biographies covering his amazingly bizarre life. But be warned– you’ll probably need a bathtub full of pink drinks!
Thank you for understanding my view :-). I wonder why film production companies make such crap as e. g. “The Empress” (with an absolutely amateurish, horrible costume designer, who knows nothing about the fashion of the period and expresses herself with such disdain about it), since a large portion of the audience are people, who are interested in history or/and the history of art. Are they thinking that the public are pelicans, who can swallow everything?
I agree with you, too. It’s saddening, actually. There’s little or no sense of beauty or aesthetics or excellence, on top of ridiculous distortion of history and real people.
Back in the day costumes might have been historically inaccurate but at least they were PRETTY!! Now the look like post modernist crap.
If that mustard yellow rayon thing had a split waist band instead of a gap, didn’t have a (faux?) breast pocket, was a different color, and wasn’t purporting to be 1850s, I’d wear it.
That’s a lot of “if”s! 😂😂😂
That’s a great screenshot of Revolutionary Boyfriend. His facial expression is less like someone realizing he’s about to die because his lover and comrade in arms betrayed him, and more like if Kendall Roy lost a Slim Shady costume contest.
The costumes are cray-cray and the history worse.
I double checked with Wikipedia, Maximilian was commander of the Austrian navy and mostly at sea in this period, not scheming in Vienna.
Oh boy, was I waiting for you guys to review this. Even though I’m a rookie when it comes to historical fashion, I figured out that something isn’t right with the costumes in this series and actively rolled my eyes out at the outfits of ladies in waiting (corsets as outer garments, ombre skirts…) and the obligatory corset yanking scene. That costume designer is really something for shitting on 1850s fashion and than giving us THESE. If you’re gonna stray from the period, at least give us something beautiful to look at, legit the only pretty dress in the whole series was Elisabeth’s wedding dress. The hairstyles were atrocious, especially those of LiW and the matron, just terrible.