If supermarket pulp romance novels stir your passions, Juana la Loca (in the U.S. also known as Mad Love, Madness of Joan, or Madness of Love) may be worth sitting through. Veteran writer/director Vicente Aranda's historical biopic is about little known Queen Joan "the Mad" (1479-1555), daughter of famed King Ferdinand and Isabella and mother to Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. In actuality, the film focuses on Joan's raging hormones and tortures viewers with Spanish inquisitions about her "madness.".
The one saving grace for Mad Love is that it raises curiosity about the ambiguous history of Queen Joan, and it does impart a human face on Queen Isabella (of Christopher Columbus fame) when she counsels her 17-year old daughter (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) about her impending arranged marriage with Archduke Philip of Habsburg (Daniele Liotti). Can any politically manipulated marriage result in love and happiness, young Joan muses? Isabella offers the hope that Ferdinand is the only man she's ever loved, but adds the caveat that that is the "only" way to respond to such queries. The fact that Isabella herself was party to a similarly arranged marriage adds some poignancy—a queen's life requires regal decorum in public, whorish abandon in the king's bedroom, and suitable heirs to pop out of the royal chambers.
Joan does fine with the private passionate side upon first meeting handsome Phillip, who looks like a cross between Fabio and Daniel Day-Lewis (straight from the Last of the Mohicans set). Like Romeo and Juliet (with parental approval), it is lust at first sight, and Phillip demands an immediate sixty-second marriage vow and plants a laugh inducing open mouth kiss on his bride before hoisting her off to bed and engaging in sex so loudly that all the eavesdropping maidservants giggle.
Joan's sexual frolicking proves fruitful over and over. She pops out plentiful royal heirs so often and so easily that her ladies in waiting refer to her as a "cow." Most ludicrous is the incident where she rushes to the toilet to deliver her own baby a month before its due date, and bites off the umbilical cord herself. Whether that bloody scene offers evidence of Joan's insanity can be disputed, but Aranda paints her as a hedonistic woman who even gets sexual jollies from nursing her babies—an activity that raises suspicions among the court since so many wet nurses are available. Her mothering instincts don't please Phillip either, who wonders why she insists on such lowly non-queenly behavior.
Unfortunately, neither of these major characters is likeable, and Aranda's screenplay hardly penetrates the surfaces of their characters. Phillip turns out to be a philandering jerk who seeks sexual pleasures among the queen's attendants. Before long, Joan becomes suspicious, animalistically sniffing her husband's bedsheets after discovering his indiscretion and matching the scent to one of her attendants. Although her method of revenge can be justified in this case, her later plot to test Phillip's love via jealousy is unconscionable. Rather than seeing her as a sympathetic character whose "madness" is portrayed as passionate obsession, many will see Joan as a simplistic, conniving, untrustworthy bitch as soon as she tests out her theory that "You can't be in love if you aren't jealous." Lopez de Ayala's overacting doesn't help matters any, not even when toned down for the quieter old cloistered nun portraits that frame the narrative.
The film may play better to Spanish audiences more familiar with the historical background; they won't need the excessive English narration thrown in to explain the missing gaps. To substitute for weak acting, Aranda inserts a ponderous musical score to identify the emotional high points, but I can't remember what those are (it's not a good sign when you find your eyeballs rolling upwards inside your head). The script pointedly dwells on questions of Joan's madness to the point of exhaustion, so it's a major relief when she's sequestered privately to a padded castle—it's to Aranda's credit that he leaves the final conclusion about her sanity ambiguous.
Whether you choose to see Mad Love will rest on how badly you want to see banal revisionist drama on this historical period. Don't expect profundity, however, since the idea that people go a little mad when obsessed with sexual desire is hardly new fodder. But fans of trashy romance novels expecting steamy sex scenes will also be bitterly disappointed; the few such scenes included are far too brief to pleasure anyone except perverts with wild imaginations. So in the end, Aranda's film has an ambiguous potential audience. I'm not sure who will enjoy this film (except cinema masochists), and regret that I didn't walk out early.