May 23, 2012

Morgiana (1972)

While often considered separate from the Czechoslovak New Wave, director Juraj Herz began his career right at the core of the movement that would redefine Czechoslovak film industry. The fact that he wasn't a student of the Film and TV School of The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (Herz was from the Theatre Faculty) distanced him from the movement, but also allowed him to shape his very own style, which was a bit more traditional in form yet not less subversive. In fact, Herz' willingness to work around the constrains of genres allowed him to keep his eccentric and idiosyncratic vision intact even during the years of the Normalization, when the liberalization of the Prague Spring ended and a new time of censorship began. Herz' horror film "Morgiana", released in 1972, shows once again that taste for the horrific previously shown in his classic "Spalovac mrtvol" (1969), though in this case, his fight against censors wasn't that successful.

"Morgiana" is a tale of two sisters, Klára and Viktorie (both played by Iva Janzurová), who live in a large mansion after the recent death of their wealthy father. Viktorie grows jealous due to the fact that Klára has inherited most of their properties, including their family house. Klára's popularity with men is another source of annoyance for her, a feeling that becomes downright hate when Viktorie discovers that the man she loves, Marek (Josef Abrhám) is in love with Klára. Full of rage, Viktorie decides to poison her sister, so she buys a lethal potion from the mysterious Otylie (Nina Divísková). However, Viktorie's plan doesn't go exactly as planed, as the poison she go from Otylie is a slow-acting one. Due to the poisoning, Klára begins to suffer from hallucinations, while Viktorie's impatience grows stronger with each second. To make things worse, Otylie attempts to blackmail Viktorie, and the sister's cat Morgiana is a silent witness of the madness.

Set in a decadent world that seems stuck in mid 19th century, "Morgiana" is based on the story "Jessie and Morgiana" by Russian author Alexander Grin. The screenplay, by Vladimir Bor and director Juraj Herz himself, tells a story that's in essence a fairy tale in which the "good" sister faces the "bad" sister's schemes. However, it's a fairy tale with a dark spin: the story is told from the perspective of the "bad" sister of the story, exploring the growth of Viktorie's hatred for her sister, rooted in their sibling rivalry and her envy of Klára's beauty, popularity and fortune. Everything done with an exaggerated tone of melodrama that ultimately makes of "Morgiana" a Gothic parody of the classic elements of Romantic literature. And this isn't unintentional, because there's an undeniable dash of black humor in the exaggerated plot of "Morgiana". Exaggeration is the key of the story, and this extends from the screenplay to the film's carefully orchestrated visual design.

Taking as basis the conventions of traditional costume drama, director Juraj Herz exaggerates them to give "Morgiana" a highly stylized atmosphere of grotesque decadence. Instrumental for this is the work of cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera (famed for his work in Czechoslovak New Wave classics like "Perlicky na dne" and "Sedmikrásky"), who uses his talent to bring to life Herz' deliriously surreal vision of the sisters' Gothic world. Kucera's camera is highly dynamic, roaming freely through the mansion as it follows the sister's drama (of great interest are the shots that take the point of view of Morgiana, the cat). Playing with color and light, Kucera creates a dreamy atmosphere that enhances the tone of dark fairy tale that "Morgiana" has. As he previously did in "Spalovac mrtvol", director Juraj Herz makes heavy use of wide-angle lenses, not only for the aforementioned cat's point of view, but also to reflect the distorted minds of his characters.

As written above, "Morgiana" plays like an exaggerated melodrama, so a fair share of over-the-top acting is to be expected; however, even this kind of overacting requires great skill and a certain subtlety to work correctly and avoiding looking artificial, and fortunately, actress Iva Janzurová achieves this feat. Playing both Klára and Viktorie, Janzurová delivers two very different yet equally remarkable performances. As Klára, she looks sweet and frail, and manages to convey the mix of juvenile naiveté and tedious indifference of the spoiled girl's personality. The complete opposite is her performance as Viktoria, which is vibrant and full of energy, making a quite believable portrait of a woman driven by hate. Through the layers of make-up Janzurová disguises her beauty to give her character an identity of her own. Two remarkable performances indeed. The rest of the cast is less fortunate, but while their work doesn't reach the the point of being downright bad, there's a noticeable difference in quality.

Hauntingly atmospheric and deliciously grotesque, Juraj Herz' "Morgiana" is a horror film that's more unnerving than shocking, as it's based on the subtle distortion of a familiar setting. Unfortunately, despite its many interesting elements, "Morgiana" is far from being perfect, as the final third is a messy and rushed climax that feels forced and out of place. As if the scriptwriters hadn't been able to find an ending to it. In fact, there may be a reason for this unsatisfactory finale, as originally "Morgiana" was supposed to include the revelation that the two sisters being actually two different personalities of the same woman (actually a key twist of Alexander Grin's source novel). It certainly sounds like a more appropriate ending, but sadly the administration got in the way and Herz was forced to devise a different second half for the film. Remnant of this original idea is the fact that Iva Janzurová played both sisters.

Perhaps this change in the screenplay would had resulted in a more coherent and complete film, but unfortunately, it's one of those things that will never be known. Nevertheless, despite its problems "Morgiana" still holds up well as a prime example of surreal horror; and while far from being one of Juraj Herz' best works, it's a nice showcase of the style and talent of this often forgotten member of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Quirky and grotesque, "Morgiana" may not have aged that well (it may even look kitsch to modern eyes), but it's a quite interesting surreal horror film that combines horror and melodrama to create something unique. "Morgiana" is, in a way, a sadly imperfect masterpiece.


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