Spanish director Vicente Aranda’s Mad Love is a hybrid of romance novel, historical drama and sumptuous period piece. It’s lovely to look at, well-acted and ultimately as tedious as its central character’s obsessive jealousy.
After a prologue which tells us how the story is going to end, we flash back to 1496 when the 18-year-old Princess Joan (Pilar López de Ayala), daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile, is about to be sent to Brussels for a political marriage with the archduke of Austria, known as Philip the Handsome (Daniele Liotti). Joan is anxious about leaving her family and also the young guardsman whom she secretly loves — and who you know will show up later at some crucial point, because that’s the way these things tend to play out. But all that’s forgotten when she meets her intended, a swarthy Fabio type whose great talent seems to be the ability to make impressive entrances, dominating the room with his classic (if slightly wolfish) good looks. So taken is Philip by Joan’s virginal comeliness that he can’t wait for a proper marriage and, after some quick mumbling by the local shaman intended to absolve them of any sin, whisks her away to the bridal chamber for some hot consummation.
But rather than be overwhelmed or in any way upset by her new husband’s sexual aggressiveness, Joan is delighted and now, with her libido finally unleashed, can’t get enough of him, lifting her layer of skirts at every opportunity. This was rather unseemly for a woman of her time and stature, but would have remained only a mildly scandalous historical footnote (if that) had not circumstance thrust her into the limelight when, after the deaths of her mother and two older siblings, she becomes the Queen of Castile. Her new position will lead to a political struggle culminating, as we were told in the prologue, with Joan being imprisoned for the last 50-odd years of her life.
This may seem like a raw deal, and one suspects that our sympathies are supposed to lie with Joan, but along with her strong (though monogamous) sexual appetite she develops a sense of jealousy bordering on the paranoid, a state not totally unjustified since Philip is actually cheating on her. Perhaps if the film supplied a more explicit context — if it made it clearer that when Joan was sent to Flanders, a relatively sheltered girl was being removed from the austere Catholic court of Castile to the more hedonistic court of Brussels — then her actions could be seen as a sort of cultural shock. As it is, her morbid obsession with her husband’s philandering, with its unhealthy mix of neediness and the desire to control, does seem more pathological than love-struck — and when she’s finally declared mad, you might think it’s about time.
The only previous film I’ve seen by Aranda is 1972’s lugubrious La Novia ensangrentada. It’s another sort of mad-love tale, being one of several cinematic variations on Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire classic Carmilla, and which used to show up a lot, chopped and dubbed, on television in the pre-cable ’70s under the title The Blood-Spattered Bride. He handles this tale of sex and politics with a tastefulness bordering on sluggishness.
And who but the most masochistic could see the pathetic Joan as a romantic figure? The program notes for the film suggest that one should take swooning pleasure in her plight, saying, “Her madness has no remedy, but it is the most beautiful madness in the world.” Oh puh-leeze. There’s nothing beautiful about being mad and there’s certainly nothing beautiful about watching a woman suffer acutely for two hours because she’s trapped in a bad marriage and sinking fast. True, she’s a prisoner of history — it’s not like she could have kicked her husband in the yarbles, then gone to a woman’s shelter and gotten some much-needed counseling — but Aranda even softens that grimness, suggesting that our heroine was less a victim of time and place than someone who suffered for love.
But what she really suffered for was sex and the ensuing delusion that she could totally posses the object of her desire, who was too busy pursuing his own narcissistic agenda to be pinned down. It’s an unromantic story told in romantic terms, which may account for the synthetic feel of its emotional intent. It’s like a lie, only well-dressed.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].