Where is the dividing line between romantic devotion and psychotic obsession? How can you know whether your romance is Titanic...or Fatal Attraction? Veteran Spanish writer-director Vicente Aranda (Lovers) uses the story of Queen Joan "the Mad" (1479-1555)--daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, mother of Charles I of Spain (who became Emperor Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire)--to look at this age-old question...and to heat up the screen.
Outside of indisputable names and dates, it is difficult for us to assess Mad Love's historical accuracy, not only because the story of Joan is not precisely a staple in American schools, but also because the professional historians' opinion of Joan's mental state has varied greatly over the years. As Aranda presents it, in 1496--four years after her parents' sponsorship of Christopher Columbus paid off--the 17-year-old Joan (Pilar López de Ayala) is sent off to Flanders for an arranged marriage with Archduke Philip of Hapsburg (Daniele Liotti). The engagement is strictly political: The two have never met.
One might expect this marriage of convenience to be loveless, and one would be wrong. From the moment Joan first meets the sizzling Philip--it is not for nothing that he has gone down in history as Philip the Handsome--we see the glint in her eye and hear the magnified sound of her heart thumping. Philip seems equally taken with this Winona Ryder look-alike and carries her off to bed after a 90-second ceremony.
For a while, things are hunky-dory--not only are the two sexually compatible, but Joan starts popping out potential heirs to the throne at an almost alarming rate. She is a literal kingmaker, which pleases Philip, but the fact that she prefers to breast-feed her spawn despite the availability of wet nurses galore makes him begin to wonder whether she's perhaps a tad...strange. This is but the first hint we get that the notion of Joan's "madness" might be entirely a social construct. What sane woman would breast-feed if she didn't have to?
On top of that is the fact that Philip isn't just an archduke; he's also, you know, a guy. And, like lots of guys, he's got a roaming eye. Unlike lots of guys, he has the royal prerogative to boff damn near anyone he wants. The entire court conspires to discreetly keep from Joan what everyone else knows--Philip fools around.
When, at what is already a particularly traumatic juncture in her life, Joan discovers Phil in the sack--with one of her ladies in waiting, no less--she goes mad...or, perhaps, just gets mad. To a 17th-century perspective, it looks like the former, but to us her extreme reaction seems more justifiable. Still, this outburst, plus the general fact that her raging libido far outstrips her regal dignity, gives her political enemies an opening to start transferring all her inherited power to her husband, whose power-hungry advisers have always seen the marriage as nothing more than a temporary strategic alliance.
Just as Philip is about to win, there's a real-life plot twist: Despite his appearance of robust good health, the 28-year-old monarch is suddenly carried off by an unnamed disease. Joan, ever the Catholic, believes his death is her fault. When a monk convinces her that Philip will revive, she tours the countryside with his corpse rather than bury him. For the sake of hygiene, if nothing else, he is eventually buried, and Joan is placed in a nice padded fortress, where she lives to a ripe old age.
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At 75, Aranda can still make his actors sizzle on the screen as well as he did 10 years ago in Lovers. The explicitly hot bits here may be few and far between, but what there is of them is choice.
The film is beautifully mounted, but, more to the point, the issues are subtly presented, managing to walk a fine line with regard to the question of Joan's madness. We are never quite sure where Aranda stands on the nature of her mental state.
The central problem for American audiences, at least, is the difficulty of keeping track of the court intrigues. Presumably in Spain--where López de Ayala won the Goya Award for Best Actress, and the film itself only lost in many of its nominated categories because of competition from The Others, which was considered a Spanish film, despite its Hollywood connections--viewers are expected to know the basic story of Joan and the historical context. But, for the rest of us, it quickly becomes confusing as to which court we're in at any given moment, and whether it is Joan's inheritance or Philip's, and just which nobles and connivers are on whose side.
Of course, all of these questions aren't really relevant to the heart of the film, but struggling to figure them out can compromise one's ability to focus on what's important.