July 20, 2014 Leave a comment
- directed by Anatole Litvak
- starring Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Dax, Gabrielle Dorziat, Andre Dubosc
- Rebelling against his overbearing father, Austria’s crown prince, Rudolph, slips away and begins a passionate tryst with young baroness Marie Vetsera.
“Nanny, do you think a prince can be unhappy?”
The story of Archduke Rudolph and his mistress Marie Vetsera has been a point of historical fascination for a century and a quarter by now. Over the years there have been dozens of theories put forth about what exactly transpired at Mayerling on the night of January 30, 1889. Was it a murder-suicide? A botched abortion? An ambush by Vetsera’s family? Was Maria complicit in or even aware of the plan? Questions remain mostly due to evidence tampering and suppression by the House of Habsburg at the time. All we know is that after a refusal by the Pope to annul Rudolph’s existing marriage and a period of hushed courtship between the two as a result of family objections on both sides, they entered into their chambers at the quiet royal manor for one last night together and were found dead the next morning.
For better or worse it is Claude Anet’s book Idyll’s End as adapted in two Mayerling films, in 1936 and 1968, which paints the largest picture available of the doomed affair between the would-be Emperor of Austria and the young baroness. And so the story that is most often told, not surprisingly, is the one that we the ever salacious-leaning public would like to be told as we munch our popcorn, stifle our tears, and consider the many injustices this world of ours has seen through the centuries. Combining the elegance of European royalty, the façade of a classic forbidden romance, and true crime-levels of evidence and theories as to how it ended for the pair, the story of Rudolph and Marie Vetsera was tailor-made to inspire, depress, and make the world wonder for generations.
Anatole Litvak was in no way interested in telling a straight, star-crossed love story with Mayerling. There was an ominous mood that accumulated throughout and any shred of positive emotion or romance was immediately stifled by a symbolic prop or line of dialogue that pointed toward the grave, such as the skull on Rudolph’s desk, him firing a gun at his reflection in the mirror, his growing paranoia and mental anguish, a puppet show in which a character is punished for feelings of true love, and Maria wishing on her wedding ring that she dies before he does. Litvak created perfectly refined environments and the stuffy atmosphere of European pomp and circumstance. There was also on the surface somewhat of a traditional love story narrative, though cleverly seasoned with dread at every turn. For all the efforts to tamp down the sunshine and rainbows, this was still to its detriment a version of the story that had the strong-burning love between the two as the sole motivating factor to rid themselves of this world. In reality there were a lot of other factors involved.
Another problem that I had with Mayerling can be boiled down quite simply to the story of the two Vetseras. First there is the real life Mary Vetsera, who I read was every bit as melancholy and trapped as the crown prince. She was a mistress after all, one of many in fact, and on a much smaller scale she could bring on just as much public shame to her family as Rudolph. If death was a way for her and Rudolph to continue on together, than I buy the fact that Mary Vetsera, ignorant to the fact that her true love had been searching for a death partner previously, was a knowing accomplice to that plan.
A different character in the film altogether, Anet and Litvak’s Marie, as played by the lovely Danielle Darrieux, was the unassuming young woman that caught the eye of everyone as she kept to herself at various galas and receptions. She was radiant and beautiful with an aura that competed with even the most esteemed members of the crowd. My issue arises when she says of herself in an early scene that she was happy and satisfied with life. As the relationship with Rudolph developed and the cards quickly stacked against them she maintained that emotion and there were never steps made to darken her demeanor suggesting she would go along with a joined suicide attempt.
As complex as her experience and motivations were, Rudolph by comparison is an easy case. Charles Boyer played the character completely drenched with grief throughout, leading to that out of control party scene that played more like a horror movie in that we do not know what deprave acts his depression will make possible. He is a shamed playboy cursed by his father and lashing out at the formal, conservative trappings of being the heir apparent. Death was always going to be his escape hatch. He just had to find the right person with which to share that.
It is important to note the severe implications that night at Mayerling potentially had on the world at large. The line of succession was foggy to say the least upon Rudolph’s death, leading his father to appoint his nephew, Rudolph’s cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This was already a time when tensions in Europe were escalating and Austria-Hungary influence was waning considerably. This all highlights a very clear alternate timeline, in which there is no assassination of the heir to the throne in 1914, no escalation of tensions and July crisis, and just maybe no World War I. About 16 million people died during World War I and it very well could have been because of the two that did themselves in 25 years earlier.