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Monday, November 6, 2017

THE SISSI COLLECTION -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

There are some movies that you can either pass over for lack of initial interest, or find a way to plug into.  I plugged into THE SISSI COLLECTION and was shocked--so to speak--to discover how much I quickly came to enjoy this sparkling Technicolor trilogy of Austrian films (plus two bonus films and various extras) now available in a deluxe Blu-ray set from Film Movement, newly restored in 2K.

Seventeen-year-old Romy Schneider is a delight as the sweet, utterly unpretentious Sissi (short for "Elizabeth"), a wild child who only reluctantly plays the royalty game when protocol, and her socially-conscious mother, demand.  Otherwise, this countrified Bavarian princess would rather be fishing, riding horses, or hunting (although she never shoots but only likes to look at the animals) with her father, whose similarly rough and "improper" ways she has thoroughly inherited. 

In SISSI (1955), the first of the three films, Sissi and her mother, Duchess Ludovika (Romy's real-life mother Magda), along with her older sister Nene, travel to Vienna to meet the young Emperor, Franz Joseph (Karlheinz Böhm, PEEPING TOM), whose marriage to Nene has been prearranged. (We know early on that Franz is both a nice guy and a decent ruler when he refuses to sign the execution order for eight political prisoners until he's satisfied they're deserving of such a fate.)

It's a love story that harkens back to Cinderella, with the wicked stepmother replaced here by a not-so-bad mom hung up on royal protocol and one older sister, also not wicked, who gets first crack at the handsome prince (or in this case, emperor). 

He, of course, first meets Sissi after she furtively escapes the palace for some fishing, and falls madly in love with the wild girl, thinking her a lovely commoner. Naturally, there's a festive ball that evening to announce his engagement to Nene, where he discovers Sissi's real identity and proposes to her instead.  Comfortingly familiar complications ensue in which our only concern, really, is how well-meaning sister Nene is going to take such a potentially devastating humiliation. 

But greater trouble looms on the horizon in the form of Franz Joseph's stern, unyielding mother, Archduchess Sophie (Vilma Degischer), who will stop at nothing to sabotage her son's marriage to a girl she deems utterly unworthy.  Meanwhile, the fiercely independent Sissi, to her husband's great delight, proves not only a wonderful wife but also a wise and compassionate leader who unites their subjects while charming even his most obstinate political opponents.

One might describe SISSI with the old Hollywood term "woman's picture"--which, let's face it, it is--but it's definitely something anyone in the mood for light, sumptuous, and visually dazzling entertainment can sit back and enjoy.  The vast, incredibly lavish indoor sets are dripping with whatever constitutes "royalty", while the outdoor scenery of Austria and other locations are some of God's most deliriously colorful handiwork.

The wedding of Sissi and Franz Joseph, and all the attendant ceremony, are almost brain-fryingly opulent.  I've never seen anything like it--just as one scenario appears as dazzling as it can get, it's topped by the next jaw-dropping spectacle.

The humor is of the mildly amusing and gently satirical variety, a welcome change of pace from overt slapstick and farce.  The initial mistaken-identity factor is well-played as Sissi charms Franz Josef with her sincere qualities before he discovers her regal origins.  The romantic and political entanglements are similarly handled with just the right amounts of light humor, heartfelt sentiment, suspense, and clever storytelling.

Ernst Marischka's surehanded direction (he wrote and directed all three films in the trilogy), along with impeccable production values, superb costumes, and a swirling symphonic musical score, blend to give the film an almost lighter-than-air quality, like an expertly prepared cinematic confection.  Watching it is like digging into an entire Bavarian cream pie with a big spoon right out of the plate.
SISSI has a relaxing, almost soothing quality because it just wants to amuse and delight us instead of dragging us through raucous farce or hand-wringing melodrama.  It has a pleasing mix of reality and fairytale magic that, to my surprise, I found guilelessly appealing and effortlessly watchable.

SISSI: THE YOUNG EMPRESS (1956) picks up right where the first one left off (the three films play like a mini-series and should be seen as such) with the young couple still madly in love while coping with crucial international affairs.  Chief among these are the strained relations between Austria and Hungary, the latter personified by angry young rebel Count Andrassy (Walther Reyer), whom Sissi will eventually charm with her love of his country and genuine concern for its people.

Meanwhile, Franz Joseph's mother, Archduchess Sophie, continues to refer to Sissi as "a little Bavarian princess who became Empress by chance." When the couple are blessed with a daughter, Sophie drives a wedge between them by insisting on raising the girl herself, apart from the mother, an arrangement that drives Sissi to leave her husband when he sides with his mother on the issue.

This second installment forces Sissi to contend with more sinister and oppressive conflicts than before, elevating the series as a whole to to an entirely different dramatic plane.

Still, it also has even more mindblowing pomp and circumstance for us to wallow in than the previous one--it's almost like royalty porn. One particularly opulent ball reminds us how much more fundamentally impressive reality is over CGI, as this series, without a single pixel of digital FX, often outdoes the most heavily computer-generated spectacles of today.  (At some points I felt as though the deluge of undiluted cinematic grandeur would cause me to faint dead away.)

The ballroom scene is also particularly noteworthy for featuring the most politically volatile situation thus far--one which, to the Archduchess' chagrin, is beautifully and most satisfyingly resolved by Sissi's quick thinking.

Here and in subsequent scenes, all the magnificent visuals are in service to an uplifting, engaging story in which the Sissi character is more endearing than ever.  She ends up an even more grandiose figure than before, not out of a lust for power but because her sweet and caring nature cause an entire country to fall in love with her.

An even more dazzling explosion of color and richly-appointed finery than its predecessor, SISSI: THE YOUNG EMPRESS is as charming and utterly captivating as its radiant young star, Romy Schneider.  It's a bit like taking that rich Bavarian cream pie, shoving it right in your face, and loving every gooey moment of it.

SISSI: THE FATEFUL YEARS OF THE EMPRESS (1957) has all the qualities of the first two films, but by this time the series reaches new maturity along with its main character.  Having conquered Count Andrassy and the people of Hungary, Sissi sets her winning ways to new purposes even as her vile mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, tries to poison her marriage to Franz by suggesting to him that she's being unfaithful.

To make matters worse, Sissi is stricken with an unknown disease which the royal physician warns may be incurable.  While she's bedridden, the grief-stricken Franz Joseph must contend with a growing rift between Austria and Italy that will be accentuated by the cold reception he and Sissi receive upon their eventual state visit there.

Despite all the dramatic complications, this third SISSI adventure is brimming with more beautiful nature photography and some charming rural vignettes as the royal couple vacation incognito at a small mountain lodge in the Alps. (This is followed by some location photography during Sissi's visit to Greece.)

Later, there's a breathtaking view of a cavernous opera house in Milan where the invited Italian aristocrats express their disapproval of the visiting royal couple by ordering their lowly servants to attend in their stead. This leads to some delightful comedy as Sissi and Franz Joseph receive the delighted commoners as royalty at a reception following the opera. 

But best of all is the ending sequence which contains some of the most strikingly splendid imagery of the series as the royal couple's regal procession passes majestically through the picturesque canals and streets of Venice, to the eerie silence of its disapproving citizens.  A final surprise and a heartwarming wrap-up bring both SISSI: THE FATEFUL YEARS OF THE EMPRESS and the trilogy as a whole to a stirring conclusion.

Disc four of the Blu-ray set features the film VICTORIA IN DOVER, aka "The Story of Vickie" (1954), which predates the "Sissi" series by a year while serving as a blueprint for it by featuring a headstrong teenage girl, chafing against the burdens of royalty, suddenly finding herself in a position of grave responsibility while also expected to enter into pre-arranged royal matrimony. 

Here, however, that solemn position is no less than Queen of England, and the callow young girl, Victoria (Romy again, of course, and just as captivating as ever) is beset on both sides by those who wish to use her to advance their own political goals.  In fact, the first half of the film is preoccupied with the turbulent political concerns that occur when Victoria unexpectedly becomes Queen and must shoulder burdens that a lesser person might find unbearable.

Finally, though, at about the halfway point, all of this changes abruptly and VICTORIA IN DOVER becomes just the kind of romantic fantasy that made the "Sissi" movies so irresistible.  It may be even more of a fairytale story, in fact, with Victoria stopping off at a humble roadside inn (in disguise as a commoner, of course) only to meet her intended husband, the German prince Albert (Adrian Hoven), who is also there posing as one of the little people. 

One thing leads to pretty much exactly what you think it will, although as usual this predictability is of the highly satisfying kind.  The romantic aspect is such that the film is positively Disneyesque at times--Victoria reminds me of Snow White, while the prince is definitely charming.  I almost expected them to start singing to each other during the "Romeo" scene on the balcony of Vickie's rustic hotel room. 

VICTORIA IN DOVER has everything we love about the "Sissi" series but with a different recipe.  It's still quite a sumptuous dish. 


Disc five in THE SISSI COLLECTION contains two featurettes.  One is "Sissi's Great-Grandson at the Movies", an excerpt from the documentary "Elisabeth: Enigma of an Empress" which features the title descendant of the real-life Sissi comparing the historical figure to her cinematic counterpart. 

The other is "From Romy to Sissi", a lengthy black-and-white making-of documentary that's narrated in winsome fashion by Romy Schneider herself (who would die tragically at age 43) and is loaded with rare behind-the-scenes footage.

The disc also contains a fascinating novelty: the condensation of the "Sissi" trilogy into one film entitled FOREVER MY LOVE, which was then dubbed into English, given a theme song by Burt Bacharach, and released to American audiences by Paramount Pictures in 1962.  While somewhat rushed and disjointed (and unrestored), with less than ideal dubbing, this feature-length "greatest hits" package of the original trilogy is a novelty that I found keenly interesting.

Finally, the Blu-ray case contains a lavishly-illustated 20-page booklet with credits and a synopsis for each film, plus an essay by renowned film writer Farrah Smith Nehme.

In my opinion, THE SISSI COLLECTION is Blu-ray at its most dazzling and visually splendid.  A spectacular feast for the eyes, these highly enjoyable films deftly avoid melodrama, are never heavy-handed or maudlin, and never descend into soap opera.  As romantic comedy-drama, historical fiction, and pure cinematic pageantry, they're absolutely top-notch.

Type:  Blu-ray
Running Time: 600 mins. + extras
Rating:  NR
Genre:  Drama
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen/4:3
Audio:  (BD) DTS-HD Master Audio/5.1 Dolby Digital / (Bonus DVD) 5.1 Dolby Digital/2.0 Stereo
Language: German with English Subtitles

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