Anybody wondering whether Stella Cadente is a traditional royal costume drama will have their questions answered about twenty-six minutes in, when the King’s assistant goes out to the woods to have sex with a melon while an aria from Madame Butterfly plays. As confident in its own eccentricities as you’d expect from a Second Run release, Lluís Miñarro’s film burrows deep into a story from Spanish history that likely won’t be familiar to British audiences, and finds plenty of sex, politics and glacially-paced weirdness in it. What holds it together is the core of deep loneliness at its core – the melancholy of a leader without a country and a country without a leader.
Stella Cadente stars Alex Brendemühl as Amedeo I, who became King of Spain after Isabella II was deposed in 1868. A Sardinian, Amedeo’s claim on the Spanish throne was championed by General Juan Prim, who was assassinated for his trouble. This left Amedeo without significant support, and set the tone for a farcically unlucky reign. The scale of the troubles he faced as King – governments and parties dissolving and splintering, colonies fighting for independence, plots against him – would have challenged any monarch, let alone this isolated, unpopular one. Eventually he abdicated, after which – and this feels like a punchline – Spain became a Republic, but only for a year or so.
All of these facts are covered in Stella Cadente, but in a way which suggests Miñarro assumes knowledge of them. The film sets out its stall immediately as Amedeo walks into his castle. The sky is a strange, almost cyan colour, and the film takes some time to observe him simply walking through the building, enjoying the feel of the walls and the quietness of the castle. This fixation on the sensory and the immediate has become a growing trend in world cinema depictions of the past, a way to get past the ossified, retrospective, information-driven nature of so many costume dramas. It’s no surprise to see that Miñarro’s many credits as a producer include films by Albert Serra, whose films take similarly impressionistic, improvisatory looks at venerable historical and fictional figures such as Don Quixote, Louis XIV, Casanova and Dracula (the latter in Story of My Death, also released on Second Run).
This reviewer has been a bit perplexed by Serra’s work in the past. There is clearly something powerful and evocative in there, but his sheer lack of interest in conventional film narrative, imagery and pacing can be very hard work. Miñarro’s film is just as dream-like and strange but benefits from rooting its experimental impulses in the facts of Amedeo’s life. Among the embellishments are metatextual references to classic literature and art. Amedeo encrusts his pet tortoises with jewels and gold, an image borrowed from J.K. Huysmans’ classic novel of bored decadence À rebours. He also restages Gustave Courbet’s infamous painting L’origine du monde, but with a gender switch – and Courbet’s is a painting where switching the gender makes all the difference.
The Courbet reference is an example of the film’s mix of hetero- and homoeroticism, with Amedeo joined in bed by a servant girl (played by Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas) and that ol’ melon-humper himself, his aide Alfredo. About the only relationship he doesn’t seem to enjoy is the one with his wife, whose exit prompts him into a hilariously anachronistic dance to Les Surfs’ 1960s French hit ‘A Présent, Tu Peux t’en Aller’. (It would be apt if Miñarro was aware that this song was – under its original title ‘I Only Want to Be With You’ – the first single by the openly bisexual singer Dusty Springfield).
That said, there is something deliberately remote about Miñarro’s style. Even at its most salacious and bizarre, Stella Cadente is a film shot at arm’s length, full of awkward pauses, posed tableaus and frank natural light. The real subject matter is not Amedeo’s career nor his sex life but his increasing impotence in the face of the vast historical forces allied against his reign. Second Run’s typically great booklet includes an interview with Miñarro and a brilliant primer on the film’s historical context, but an attentive ear will understand plenty from the dialogue. An adviser warns that “the bankers have isolated themselves and no longer give credit”, and Amedeo tries to explain to his head of government that he’s “a Republican King – don’t you see that?” At which point the politician simply walks away, because you can’t be a Republican King.
Stella Cadente, though, manages its own paradoxes very well. A luscious film made to protest an era of austerity, an experimental film that is also pleasurable and easy to digest, an austere, slow film that is also lavish and decadent. If you had to describe it in pitch format you might say it was Shakespeare’s Richard II as a Peter Greenaway film, and as noted above it definitely has a kinship with some of the directors Miñarro’s produced. In truth it ploughs its own furrow as determinedly as its subject – albeit with much more success.