Filmmaker Mike Leigh's biography of the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner is what critics call "austere"—which means it's slow and grim and deliberately hard to love—yet…
Attain peace of mind before seeing "Mayerling." Compose yourself. This is a very long, slow, passive film, and it's going to be difficult to sit through. I guess it's worth it, though, for traditional kinds of reasons.
It tells a tale out of history. It's about beautiful doomed people. It is played by actors with grace and style: Catherine Deneuve (yes!), Ava Gardner, James Mason -- even Omar Sharif has style for a change. It has magnificent location settings, great scenery and costumes, spellbinding photography and, in short, everything except a story.
"Mayerling" is about the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All movies about the final days of empires have got to be filled with brooding irony; it's the custom. "Mayerling" broods overmuch. Its characters wander listlessly about Vienna, sighing and reciting bitter epigrams. "Be quiet," Ava Gardner says, "and after a while you will hear a noise. Perhaps a door closing or a spoon dropping. We are never entirely alone." Alas.
The situation is this. Franz-Joseph (James Mason) rules the empire with little thought for the future. His son (Sharif) complains he has no power and is a stuffed puppet. He falls in love with Catherine Deneuve. But the marriage cannot be because he's already married, for one thing. A royal scandal results. Emissaries in the night tempt Sharif with the idea of revolution.
He agrees: He will join in revolt against his father and renounce the throne. "Would you do anything for me?" he asks Catherine. "Yes, why?" she says. "Because I just have -- for you," he replies with brooding irony. No one with an undeveloped appreciation for brooding irony had better see "Mayerling" at all.
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