Dramatizing the doomed love affair between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (Omar Sharif) and his young mistress, Maria Vetsera (Catherine Deneuve), Mayerling is the kind of expensive star vehicle seldom seen anymore. No doubt that is partly because there aren’t any suitable stars to feature, but also because film making has become such an expensive gamble that it is just about impossible to recreate the ambience surrounding particular actors from one film to another.
Instead, the “franchise” movie has more or less replaced the star vehicle as the closest thing to a financial guarantee. One of the most venerable of those franchises is, of course, the Bond series. So it is ironic that Mayerling, obviously created to exploit the personas of Sharif and Deneuve, should have been directed by Terence Young, best known for his contributions to the early Bond films. Young’s slick, cold, impersonal style could be relied upon to give all of his work a lustrous sheen, without ever threatening to disrupt commercial expediency. He was a brutally efficient choreographer of the dance of glossy commodities.
In Mayerling, more or less a remake of the 1930s film starring Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux (which I haven’t seen), Young’s contributions are essential to whatever appeal the film can provide. Sharif and Deneuve are badly miscast, but they don’t have to be anything better than beautiful clothes horses pacing through jewelry box settings. For while nominally a love story, it is clear from virtually the first frame that Rudolf and Maria are an excuse for something like a guided tour through one opulent period recreation after another.
To be fair, there really isn’t much of a story. If exactly what happened at Mayerling remains murky, it is difficult to make those events into a drama in the absence of real conflict. The film emphasizes Rudolf’s edgy relationship with his father, Emperor Franz Joseph (James Mason), but apart from being rather abstract, those political differences have little to do with Rudolf’s affair and serve at most as a contrivance. Maria, on the other hand, while given a bit of wit, remains the body on which the exquisite period fashions are hung. In truth, once Maria says ”yes” to Rudolf’s advances, there isn’t much left for the characters to do but slide slowly toward their famous denouement, turning Mayerling into something like an Elvira Madigan with snow.
The incomparably impersonal Young is the perfect director to mount their sumptuous decline. Even if he wrote the screenplay, he knows his function is to serve up this procession as gorgeously as possible, not to get too intimately concerned with any of the goings on. As a result, Mayerling is a lushly handsome would-be epic in which no opportunity for ostentatious display is overlooked. The romance may provide the excuse to cast major stars, but the real love affair is between the camera and the furniture. That was surely not Young’s conscious design, merely the unconscious result.