Sex, scandal, murder and royal intrigue prove insipid ingredients in Bigas Luna's well-appointed but soporific "Volaverunt," an erotic costume drama set in the early 19th century Spanish court of King Carlos IV. Based on Antonio Larreta's novel about the mysterious death of aristocratic floozy the Duchess of Alba and the creation of Goya's celebrated paintings "La maja desnuda" and "La maja vestida," this $8 million production boasts elegant visual trappings and two strong leading women. But its characters never come alive, and its plodding central whodunit plays like refried Agatha Christie. Significant commercial heat appears unlikely outside Spain.

Sex, scandal, murder and royal intrigue prove insipid ingredients in Bigas Luna’s well-appointed but soporific “Volaverunt,” an erotic costume drama set in the early 19th century Spanish court of King Carlos IV. Based on Antonio Larreta’s novel about the mysterious death of aristocratic floozy the Duchess of Alba and the creation of Goya’s celebrated paintings “La maja desnuda” and “La maja vestida,” this $8 million production boasts elegant visual trappings and two strong leading women. But its characters never come alive, and its plodding central whodunit plays like refried Agatha Christie. Significant commercial heat appears unlikely outside Spain.

Sales agent UGC is reportedly preparing a radically different edit for international release, to be premiered later this year, in which the story’s mystery elements are to be juiced up through less chronological structuring. The Spanish-market version world-preemed in competition at the San Sebastian fest — where it was poorly received — and opens nationally Oct. 1.

“Volaverunt” is Luna’s second consecutive period piece, following “The Chambermaid and the Titanic.” While that 1997 feature proved more dramatically robust, both films lack the irreverent spark and playful sensuality that color the Catalan director’s best work in contemporary settings, such as “Jamon Jamon.”

The drama’s seductive opening unfolds in 1797 during a coach journey across expansive Andalusian landscapes in which the beautiful Duchess of Alba (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) is swiftly established as an uncommonly liberated woman for her time. She casts a considerable spell over painter Francisco de Goya (Jorge Perugorria) and Prime Minister Manuel de Godey (Jordi Molla). The latter also has eyes, however, for fiery peasant girl Pepita (Penelope Cruz), whom he summons to the royal court in Madrid to be painted by Goya and take up position in his bed.

Aided by scheming Prince Ferdinando (Zoe Berriatua), Queen Maria Luisa (Stefania Sandrelli) cramps the prime minister’s style by orchestrating the villainous womanizer’s marriage to a jealous court frump (Maria Alonso). The union serves to irk the queen’s rival, the Duchess of Alba, whose unparalleled jewelry collection she covets.

When the duchess dies suddenly after hosting a dinner, separate versions of the events leading to her death are retraced by Goya, de Godey and Pepita. Suspicion of her murder falls on each of them as well as the queen, the prime minister’s wife and her brother, a cardinal, while also entertained is the possibility that the duchess poisoned herself by using Goya’s toxic paints as makeup.

For an adaptation of a novel, the narrative has an oddly undernourished feel. Luna and Cuca Canals’ scripting of the varying accounts of the fatal night is so belabored, and tension and suspense in such short supply, that what little dramatic momentum there is comes almost to a halt. (Additional crosscutting in the international edit should improve the situation.) And despite efforts to create a sensual atmosphere in Goya’s studio as the artist creates canvases inspired by both the duchess and Pepita’s undraped forms, these scenes are lifeless and unerotic.

A good part of the problem lies with the unsatisfyingly drawn male characters. As the Machiavellian P.M., Molla is unimposingly weedy and one-note sinister, while in a performance of relatively few words, Cuban actor Perugorria struggles with his accent and conjures a flat stereotype of the soulful, tortured artist, burning holes in the duchess with his smoldering gaze but never conveying much beyond doltish obsession.

The women fare better and provide the drama’s true center. Sanchez-Gijon overcomes some clumsy dialogue to make the duchess a dreamy, passionate, somewhat amusingly absurd figure; her fainting during orgasm and constant reference to the “volaverunt” beneath her skirts are hard to take seriously. (The significance of the obscure term that gives the film its unmemorable title is only partly explained.)

Cruz simmers with intensity and resoluteness as she spies unseen on the other characters before finally refusing to remain hidden away. One scene especially, in which she competes with the duchess on the dance floor, has an energy missing elsewhere. Among the supporting cast, Italian veteran Sandrelli supplies some mischievous humor as the greedy, unscrupulous queen. All five principal cast members have worked with Luna in the past — Cruz, Molla and Sandrelli in “Jamon Jamon,” Sanchez-Gijon in “The Chambermaid and the Titanic” and Perugorria in “Bambola.”

Paco Femenia’s warmly lit widescreen lensing is suitably handsome but at times a little constricted within the opulent royal court settings, robbing the lavishly designed and costumed production of some visual depth by perhaps sticking too often to closeups and mid-shots. Editing of the Spanish cut is sluggish.

Volaverunt

Spanish-French

Production

An Aurum release (in Spain) of a Mate Prod. presentation of a Mate Prod./MDA Films/UGC YM/UGC Intl. production with participation of Television Espanola, Via Digital, Canal Plus (France). (International sales: UGC Intl., Paris.) Produced by Mate Cantero, Stephane Sorlat. Executive producer, Cantero. Directed by Bigas Luna. Screenplay, Cuca Canals, Luna, based on the novel by Antonio Larreta.

With

Duchess of Alba - Aitana Sanchez-Gijon The Maja (Pepita Tudo) - Penelope Cruz Manuel de Godey - Jordi Molla Francisco de Goya - Jorge Perugorria Queen Maria Luisa de Parma - Stefania Sandrelli King Carlos IV - Carlos La Rosa Prince Ferdinando VII - Zoe Berriatua Countess de Chinchon - Maria Alonso
Camera (color, widescreen), Paco Femenia; editor, Kenout Peltier; music, Alberto Garcia Demestre; production designer, Luis Valles "Koldo"; costume designer, Franca Squarciapino; sound (Dolby Digital), Gilles Ortion, Albert Manera, Richard Casals; line producer, Alain Centonze; assistant director, Richard Walker; casting, Consol Tura. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 18, 1999. Running time: 115 MIN.
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