Part Grimm fairy tale, part Gothic melodrama, part psychoanalytic allegory of the repressed -- "Morgiana" is an eccentric, gaudily decorative vision of the grotesque created by Slovak director Juraj Herz in 1971.
Made just after the start of the censorship clampdown that proceeded from the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, in the wake of the liberalisations of 1968's Prague Spring, Herz's film nevertheless managed to avoid the worst of the ensuing political censorship from the administration of the time; the director was never really a part of the Czechoslovak New Wave and the dark, skewed, otherworldly ambience of a film like "Morgiana" seems to owe more to the puppeteering of Herz's training in the theatre faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts than it does to the renowned artistic movement in Czech cinema of the early sixties. Looked at today, the film has a similar dreamlike texture to the early work of Jean Rollin or Jess Franco -- part of a European cinema of the Fantastique that's as much informed by pantomime or children's stories as it is influenced by the dark Gothic splendour of Edgar Allan Poe's fiction; such qualities are captured in the exaggerated theatricality of its acting style, the lush ornamentalism of its set dressings and art design, and the gaudy excesses of its Edwardian period costumes. The fairy tale-like characters of "Morgiana" are like elaborately dressed up dolls, painted in the most vividly grotesque, Felliniesque shades of greasepaint. It's a horror film in the sense that it dwells on unsettled (and unsettling) psychological states, but they're dramatised in the form of a seemingly prosaic but heightened melodrama about a sibling rivalry turned malignant, set in a feverish fictionalised world of crumbling villas, windswept cliff-tops and isolated ruins. Like Angela Carter's fiction, the ostensibly trite, childlike plotting conceals a rich undercurrent of adult neurosis and festering madness.
The film is based on a short story by the Russian writer Aleksandr Grin and tells the tale of two sisters (both played by one actress, Iva Janžurová): one of them -- Klára -- is carefree and happy, dresses in lacy white clothes and sports a head of magnificent golden-red curls. She is adored by everyone and has many suitors, all of whom she treats with the same good-natured indifference. Viktoria, on the other hand is dark and pale, dresses in black, is considered ugly and generally disliked or ignored by all. She harbours suppressed feelings of hatred and jealousy directed towards her unsuspecting sister, and only reserves real affection for her pet Siamese cat, Morgiana.
Things come to a head when both sisters inherit separate properties in the will of their recently deceased father. Before she leaves the home they both grew up in, Viktoria buys a clear-liquid slow-acting poison -- which she receives in a wax-sealed package that comes in the post -- and she sprinkles it into her sister's drink. She makes the long trip to her new home, many miles away, but cannot help but wonder if the poison she was sold was actually real or not; she feels divorced from her actions, so far away from news of her sister's condition. Eventually, she hears that Klára is indeed feeling a little unwell and suffers from an unquenchable thirst. But this could just be coincidence. On the other hand, the poison was designed to act very slowly so as to relieve suspicion and not leave any trace of itself upon the victim's eventual death. Viktoria decides to test a little more of the drug -- just to make sure. She sprinkles some into the dog's bowl of milk, but is called away at a vital moment and is unsure whether it was the dog, her beloved cat Morgiana, or the servant's infant son who actually drank the poison! Meanwhile, Klára begins to suffer from acute hallucinations and strange altered states of consciousness. Two of her suitors -- a doctor and a handsome soldier -- start to suspect something is amiss, while the fortune teller who originally sold Viktoria the poison threatens to blackmail her when she too learns of Klára's strange illness.
With a strident and Insistently pulsing orchestral theme by Lubos Fiser and delirious visuals curtesy of the work of cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera, whose copious use of wide-angle lenses, his frequent and surreal handheld cat's POV shots and hazy hallucinogenic prism effects for representing Klara's distorted and disorganised sense of reality (which look kind of like a 3D film does, without the coloured glasses) give "Morgiana" something of the feel of Polanski's "Repulsion" if it'd been shot amid the elaborate Art Nouveau production design gaudiness of "Suspiria" -- the latter an appropriate reference given both films' attempt to conjure the ominous ambience of a delicate fairy tale cast under the darkest of storm clouds.
The film succeeds in establishing an otherworldly air of 19th Century decadence, set in some unspecified central European never-never land where unspeakable murderousness lies barely concealed by the doll-like manners of the narrative's cast of flimsy story book characters. Herz apparently wanted to make a film that was more overtly about a schizophrenic psychological state, but was forced into taking a much more straight forward narrative route when his original script -- which revealed at the end that there was in fact only one protagonist, each sister being merely a different side to the same personality -- was forbidden by the authorities. Herz made the film with no love for the project, and thought of it merely as an exercise in keeping his flim-making muscles active.The duel performance of Iva Janžurová underpins everything here, and is so convincing it's easy to forget that both roles are being played by the same person; the join is impossible to spot thanks to Herz's impeccable skills.Despite this, the director's original ideas have been forced underground and into the subtext of the movie, which makes them far more powerful than they probably would have been if Herz had stuck with the original plot idea, which, nowadays, seems rather more clichéd than it would have in 1971.
Alongside the strikingly offbeat and haunted visual stylishness of the film, "Morgiana" builds an unsettling sense of disquiet, displaced reality and a sense of duality through several subtle strategies. Firstly, Viktoria is presented as a considerably more nuanced would-be murderess than her scary make up and Gothic style of dress would immediately suggest: after secretly applying the poison to her sister's drink at breakfast, she at first suffers from second thoughts, and even attempts to persuade Klara not to drink her water and to send for another glass instead. Once her sister does eventually down the mixture, though, she experiences a sense almost of elation, and the thought that she might have got away with such an act unleashes a cruel and recklessly vindictive streak in the woman, leading her to launch an attack on one of her servant girls in order, presumably, to experience the rush all over again -- clumping the girl on the head with a rock from behind while she is bathing near the beach! Then as the weeks pass, doubt and paranoia start to creep in and she wonders if she is really responsible for her sister's illness at all. Her attempt to poison the staff dog as conformation only leads to even more suspense and a feeling of unreality -- as now she is forced to examine every little tick or unusual action of the three possible recipients of the poison for signs of their impending doom.
Meanwhile, Klara's unsettled mental state leads to hallucinations in which she encounters a second version of herself, but one who seems more like Viktoria in her sour, vindictive actions. This and Viktoria's increasing sense of detachment leads to exactly the air of schizoid unravelling of identity as Herz had intended with the original script, while the surface narrative continues to conform throughout to the fairy tale motif of the innocent 'Snow White' heroine and her her black-clad Wicked Witch nemesis. The film eventually settles into the familiar routines of Gothic fiction, particularly evoking the work of Edgar Allan Poe, specifically "The Black Cat". The role of Viktoria's pet Siamese cat Morgiana is eventually to be both that of symbol of guilt and harbinger of death, representing accidentally delivered justice, seemingly from beyond the grave.
"Morgiana" comes to UK DVD for the first time thanks to Second Run DVD. The full frame transfer (the film's original aspect ratio according to the disc booklet) is full of speckles and often appears rather dark. It probably doesn't represent the film's colourful decor and ornate production design at its very best but it's good enough to convey the general tone and style of this unique work. The removable English subtitles are clear and understandable and the Czech language audio is delivered in clear restored mono. There is a 15 minute filmed interview with Juraj Herz included as an extra, in which he discusses the origins and intent of the film in Czech with English subtitles; and the disc is packaged with a 12 page booklet of essays by writer Daniel Bird and Dr Ian Conrich of the University of Stirling.
This is a strange and haunting little film, rarely seen on these shores for many years. All lovers of the Fantastique will be glad to have it available again on this worthwhile DVD release.