"I want to be yours. I want to love you even if you loathe me."—Joan the Mad
Queen Joan of Spain, also known as Joan the Mad, is a fascinating historical figure who's been the subject of an opera by Argentine composer Eduardo Alonso-Crespo, and now this film by Spanish writer/director Vicente Aranda. Juana la Loca in its Spanish release, someone in the States must have decided the title was too Merchant-Ivory, changing it to the uninspired Mad Love, a name already used for a mediocre Drew Barrymore and Chris O'Donnell flick.
Names aside, the question is whether Aranda has successfully mined a character with great dramatic potential. Let's proceed.
Facts of the Case
Joan of Castile (Pilar López de Ayala), the daughter of Queen Isabella of Spain (you know, Christopher Columbus' benefactor), is set up in an arranged marriage with Archduke Philip of Habsburg (Daniele Liotti). Sent to Austria to wed, Joan knows she will likely never see her mother again, and the separation is painful.
In Austria, Joan and Philip are instantly infatuated and marry without ceremony so they can get down to consummating the union. Joan learns she likes sex…a lot. Her love for Philip becomes consuming, obsessive, and she begins bearing him children in rapid succession. Philip, meanwhile, takes on hobbies of his own: infidelity and political power-grabs.
Joan discovers Philip's philandering on the same day she learns of her mother's death, and amidst much histrionics becomes the eponymous Joan the Mad. The couple returns to Spain so Joan can take her place as the country's ruler, but Philip has other ideas. If he can have her tossed away as a nutjob, the Spanish throne will be his.
Mad Love is a handsome film. The locations and sets are vast, magnificent, and ornate, and the costumes are rich and detailed. Its presentation of 16th century Austria and Spain is gritty and realistic and often dirty; the world of the film looks lived-in. Paco Femenia's cinematography benefits greatly from the precise detail of the production design; it's straight-forward, earthy, unstylized, visually beautiful without being technically self-indulgent. Overall, the DVD does right by his solid work. The transfer is anamorphically enhanced at the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Blacks are dense and rich with good shadow detail, important in a film with many warm and dark, candlelit interiors. Colors are natural and perfectly rendered. Edge enhancement is noticeable here and there, and there are isolated patches in which the image appears slightly unstable, but these are minor annoyances.
The audio is also impressive, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in Castilian Spanish with both English and French subtitles accessible via menu or remote. It's robust for a costume drama, the score and sound effects spread throughout the soundstage in surprisingly dynamic fashion. The track's a bit deceptive because it's been mixed at a higher volume than most discs, giving the impression it's got more punch than is really there. It's not nearly as subtle and dynamic as the most impressive tracks out there, but it's plenty fine considering the film's genre.
I wish I could say the substance of the film itself, the narrative, lives up to the beauty and realism of its sights and sounds. It's shallow, juvenile. The problem, rooted in Joan's motivations, is so fundamental it ruins the entire film. Joan's love for Philip is entirely physical, sexual—in a bookend to the film's main narrative, an aged Joan (María Jesús Valdés) laments her separation from Philip, saying she even misses the smell of his armpits; it doesn't get much more physical than that. The young Joan and Philip have a week-long marathon-of-sex honeymoon and that's it for Joan; she's his slave, unable to recognize when he's walking all over her. There's even a hilariously heavy-handed shot of López de Ayala in close-up, looking in wide-eyed awe at Philip's manhood, the instrument of her degradation. It's as if the script were written by frat boys.
Daniele Liotti, as Philip, doesn't help matters. Cast for the benefit of the ladies, I'm sure, he has the dark and hunky look of a Harlequin Romance cover boy, complete with Fabio-like long and wavy hair, and perpetual five o'clock shadow. Casting Pamela Anderson Lee in the role of Joan would've made a better match for him. To be fair, Liotti's performance isn't bad, but he's got no substance to work with. Philip's looks and sexual prowess are the only things that bind Joan to him. He's otherwise dull, demonstrating few signs of intelligence or cunning. He comes off like a rich, spoiled cad, a manboy adept at posing and preening but out of his depth when dealing with the substantive challenges of politics and monarchical rule.
Based on some of the titles of his previous films (Lovers, Turkish Passion, Jealousy), films I'll admit never having seen, director Vicente Aranda appears to have a fascination with sex and erotic love, and perhaps believed he was saying something profound about human sexuality here, but he was dead wrong. The sad thing is so much of Joan's potential psychological landscape is left unexplored in favor of simplistic, purely sexual motivations. Here's a young girl from Spain, sent to Austria for an arranged marriage that will strengthen her family's political influence, separated from her mother and family, forced to live in a society with which she's unfamiliar after having lived a life of privilege in Spain. There are so many compelling reasons Joan could have an unhealthy connection to Philip, her husband, an island of stability and familiarity in a world in which she feels an outsider. Aranda ignores such pesky complexity and crassly reduces it all to genitals and orgasms.
What a disappointment.
On the acting front, Pilar López de Ayala delivers a good performance in the vein of Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind, weeping and raging and generally chewing scenery. Granted we're a long way from 1939, and modern sensibilities generally find those sorts of histrionics laughable, but in this case it's an island of fun in an otherwise painful experience. Besides, what else should the actress have done given the role of a woman driven mad by a chiseled chin, rock-hard abs, and a deftly wielded penis? I'm not going to second guess her. And, anyway, her screeching tirades and crying jags are delivered passionately and with complete dedication. I hope she finds herself in more worthwhile projects in the future.
Mad Love has much to recommend it. It's visually beautiful and the skeleton of the story is quite compelling. Unfortunately, Aranda's deeply flawed conceptualization of story and character knocks down the whole house of cards. The end result is little more than a crappy soap opera hiding behind unusually high production values.
I can't recommend it.
Vicente Aranda is found guilty. Handled by a different director, penned by a better writer, this film may have been an engaging costume drama. That wasn't meant to be, I guess.
Court's in recess.
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