Hystorical Fiction


You’d think that medieval costume dramas might be as obsolete as leech-bleeding after the postmod dressing-down exacted by Roberto Rossellini and Monty Python, but far be it from movie culture to obey a logical progression. Like Elizabeth before it, Vicente Aranda’s straight-faced Mad Love (originally Juana la LocaJoan the Mad) plunges ahead into royal court intrigue as if Irving Thalberg were still alive and stumping for “prestige pictures.” Aranda’s itch for erotic tension makes the difference: His characters glaze over with lust every few minutes, and while Mad Love isn’t particularly explicit, it’s as serious about sexual healing as it is about castles, candlelight, and Lynyrd Skynyrd coifs.

Aranda’s historical thrust parallels Elizabeth‘s post-feminist, bye-bye-love martyrdom, but the stakes are more hair-raising. The 16th-century queen Joan I of Castile was, by any standard, a certifiable Ophelian disaster. Entering into a prearranged marriage with a faithless Flemish archduke, Joan falls possessively in love and essentially wrecks her monarchy on the rocky shores of her marriage, eventually being judged insane, deposed, and imprisoned for life at the age of 28. Much of Joan’s biography does suggest lunacy—after her beloved rogue dies of what may have been syphilis, the queen commands silence from her subjects, so as to not wake him. But Aranda’s original title is ironic: The official revisionist portrait is of an ardent woman figuratively burned at the stake for her frenzied femininity. Like that other Joan, she is the victim of a masculine world befuddled about how to assimilate the seizures of Venus.

At first, Aranda’s pageant feels Hallmark-special stolid, and his two stars Pilar López de Ayala and Daniele Liotti seem to have been shipped in from a Versace ad. Soon, though, the show becomes the sharp-eyed López de Ayala’s altogether, as Joan’s worldview begins warping with lust and, eventually, maniacal jealousy. The climactic political tug-o’-war—between the conspiring Flemish usurpers and the loyal Castilian royalists who try to rescue the obsessed Joan from her own private Iberia—is as frustrating as trying to reason with a sick mind yourself. Along the way, Aranda tosses in the movies’ first-ever pre-Enlightenment peep show, nipple rouging, and emergency bathroom birth. (López de Ayala is never as mesmerizing as when matter-of-factly biting through the umbilical cord.) Adroit but finally a trifle flat, Mad Love doesn’t galvanize its outrage the way, say, Jane Campion might have done, but at least it possesses some.

Walter Hill’s new muy macho genre exercise Undisputed pits Zen-ish penitentiary boxing master Wesley Snipes against Mike Tyson-esque pro champ/new convict Ving Rhames, in a climactic match that decides who’s the emperor of the North Pole. Broad as a hangar wall (particularly Peter Falk’s phlegmy mobster coot), the movie is typical Hill-pulp: modestly scaled and efficiently cheesy. But the hyperactively edited fight scenes disallow you to focus on the action, and therefore tax patience. If Hill isn’t quite his generation’s Don Siegel (or Robert Aldrich), it’s because there’s no discernible feeling beneath the chest hair; it’s all bluster and cliché. Undisputed‘s saving grace is Rhames, whose fearless, egomaniacal juggernaut (doing time, of course, for rape) outperforms the real McCoy.