The royal marriage proved unhappy, Elisabeth feeling herself unsuited to and oppressed by the royal duties demanded of her. But she became renowned as a beauty, her looks, pursuits and personal style of huge public interest (though evidently she suffered from what we now call anorexia nervosa.) The story so far might possibly remind you of someone… But the first acute twist of tragedy in Elisabeth’s life came in 1889 when her estranged son Crown Prince Rudolf and his young lover Baroness Mary Vetsera committed suicide together in a hunting lodge, this becoming known as ‘The Mayerling Incident’. Then in 1898 Elisabeth was stabbed fatally by an Italian anarchist who had wished to strike a blow at monarchy in principle, and found her nearest at hand.
The supposed romance of ‘Sissi’ was essayed in a sequence of romantic German films from the 1950s starring the young Romy Schneider. (Schneider played the same role, only older and in a different league, for Luchino Visconti in his 1974 film Ludwig, devoted to Elisabeth’s cousin Ludwig II of Bavaria.) But other, more notable art-works played on the darker, sadder strains of her life. Jean Cocteau’s play and film L’Aigle à deux têtes imagined a sort of mirror-image attraction between an Elisabeth figure and her assassin. (In 1980 Michelangelo Antonioni shot a feature film on videotape inspired by Cocteau, The Oberwald Mystery.) Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve played Elisabeth’s ill-fated son and his lover in Terence Young’s Mayerling (1968), with Ava Gardner as the Empress. And Kenneth MacMillan’s ravishing ballet Mayerling premiered in 1978.
That array of dazzling works by some of the twentieth century’s great artistic heavyweights tells us something, surely, about the appeal of the ‘Reluctant Empress’? For samples of the works in question, please see below.