If there’s anything more preposterous than the sight of 26-year-old Catherine Deneuve playing the 17-year-old Maria Vetsera, who entered into a suicide pact with the Austrian Archduke Rudolph in the hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889 (or else was murdered), it’s the sight of Omar Sharif as the ill-fated nobleman. In Terence Young’s Mayerling (1968) you get both, along with Ava Gardner as a very American Empress Elizabeth and James Mason as a sometimes accent-sporting Emperor Franz Joseph. In terms of kitsch, it would be hard to ask for more. The problem with the kitsch here is that it’s also inclined to be rather dull and overlong. Somehow when Anatole Litvak tackled the same material in France back in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux, he managed to fit it into a 96-minute movie. Young requires 138 minutes to tell the same story—to lesser effect. Perhaps Young was too in love with all the lush, picturesque surroundings afforded him by the location shooting. Whatever the reason, what he came up with is a movie that’s mostly a pretty bore—enlivened by bizarre casting and amusingly stilted dialogue.
All this is probably not entirely Young’s fault. The movie is perched between two schools of thought: It wants to be daring (it was 1968, remember), and yet it doesn’t want to debunk this great, historically dubious romance. As a result, the film hints at darker things about Rudolph—most notably his very close relationship with his mother (“It was such a delicious sensation having your voice running up and down my spine”)—while generally opting to try to turn him into a very ‘60s political activist in a tunic rather than a Che Guevara T-shirt. Frankly, the film is a mess, but it’s an interesting mess that says much about the time in which it was made.