Writer-director Vicente Aranda bases the lengthy, episodic narrative of Mad Love on historical events surrounding Princess Joan of Castile (aka 'Joan the Mad'). He follows Joan (Pilar Lžpez de Ayala), the daughter of Isabella, Queen of Castile, on her 1496 voyage to Flanders, where she meets her betrothed, Prince Philip (Daniele Liotti), for the first time.
Joan falls instantly in love with Philip (aka "Philip the Handsome"), and for a while they live in bliss. But after the deaths of her elder brother, sister and mother, Joan becomes the Queen of Castile and heir to the crown of Aragon. Around this time, Philip begins cheating on Joan with various chambermaids. When Joan discovers the infidelity, she becomes outraged and fires her staff, but she never falls out of love with Philip.
Later, as Joan becomes increasingly suspicious of other women around her husband, Philip's advisors try to have her declared insane so that Philip will take over, giving greater power to the Flemish contingent within the monarchy. Despite her attempts to counter her accusers, Joan is unsuccessful--until Philip meets a cruel fate.
Aranda's main point seems to be that Joan was not so much 'mad' as misunderstood, and that her transgressions say more about the mores of her time, rather than anything psychological about her. And yet even by contemporary standards, Joan epitomizes an obsessive personality, and her love of Philip is as much self-defeating as all-consuming. Yes, one enjoys seeing Joan grow from awkward young woman to strong, determined monarch, but her love for the philandering Philip only diminishes her stature, both to the characters who eventually brand her insane, and to the film viewers who will undoubtedly fail to identify with any protagonist who utters lines like, 'I want to love you even if you loathe me!'
In this way, Mad Love (which has nothing to do with the 1935 film of the same title) shares similarities with Queen Christina, Young Bess and other classics about female royalty willing to sacrifice their duties for romance. Also, like the more recent Artemesia, about one of history's first female painters, the factual component is questionable, as tortured romance supersedes accomplishment.
Despite the old-fashioned ideology, at least Mad Love is good to look at. Stars Lžpez de Ayala and Liotti are real dark-haired beauties, as well as being quite talented. (Expect to see them both in many more big films.) The production design is sumptuous, the costumes ravishing, and at least a few shots resemble Vermeer paintings. (The whole production resembles Jacques Feyder's classic Carnival in Flanders, as if filmed in color and Cinemascope.)
What Mad Love lacks is the light touch of Feyder, and when the drama becomes overwrought, it could use the dazzle of a Ken Russell or the political acumen of a Peter Greenaway. At any rate, someday Aranda could turn Mad Love's pictorials into a nice coffee-table book.