Monday, 2 March 2015


Recently cited by director Peter Strickland as a major influence on his new film The Duke of Burgundy (which I have yet to see), Morgiana is an eccentric, gaudily decorative vision of the grotesque, created by Slovak director Juraj Herz in 1971. A fairy tale fantasia that seems to have emerged directly from the same world as the stories of the Brothers Grimm, it’s part Gothic melodrama and part Jungian psychoanalytic allegory of the repressed: a sort of trippy period storybook of distorted doppelgangers, kaleidoscopic mirror images and split personalities fragmenting in hallucinogenic fugue states.

Made in the wake of the political clampdown which came after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in reaction to the liberalisation program of 1968's Prague Spring, Herz's film nevertheless managed to avoid the worst of the ensuing censorship wrought by the administration at the time; the director was never really part of the Czechoslovak cinema's 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 (where he was a contemporary of Jan Svankmajer) than it does to the artistic developments in Czech film which came about in the early sixties. Looked at today, the film has a similar dreamlike texture to the early work of Jean Rollin and to some of Jess Franco’s erotic revelries, making it part of a European tradition 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 the film’s acting style, the lush decorative ornamentalism of its set dressings, make-up and art design, and the gaudy excesses of its period costuming.

 The fairy tale-like characters of Morgiana are as elaborately dressed up dolls or mannequins existing in a hermetic fairy-tale principality (although some of these dolls are rarely seen without a cigarette in hand), who're painted in the most vividly exaggerated, Felliniesque shades of greasepaint while possessing thick spidery eyelashes plastered in mascara. It's a horror film in the sense that Herz dwells on unsettled (and unsettling) psychological states, but dramatised in the form of a seemingly prosaic yet heightened melodrama centred on a sibling rivalry turned malignant; one that is set amid a feverish fictionalised Poe-like Gothic world of crumbling villas, windswept cliff-tops and isolated ruins. Like a piece of Angela Carter fiction, the ostensibly trite, childlike storybook plotting conceals a rich undercurrent of neurosis and festering adult 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 red-golden curls (she looks like a figure in a Gustav Klimt painting).  Klára 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 exclusively in black, is considered ugly, and is generally disliked or ignored by all. She harbours suppressed feelings of hatred and jealousy directed towards her unsuspecting sister, and only retains any 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 sends away for a clear liquid, slow-acting poison -- which she receives in a wax-sealed package that arrives via the post -- and she sprinkles it into her sister's glass of sparkling water. She then makes the long coach 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 previous actions, living so far away from news of her sister's condition. Eventually, she hears that Klára is indeed feeling unwell and suffers from an unquenchable thirst. But couldn't this 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 after the victim's eventual death.
Viktoria decides to test a little more of the drug -- just to make sure. She sprinkles some into the household 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 and puts two and two together. 

With a set of strident and insistently pulsing orchestral theme cues by Lubos Fiser, and delirious visuals courtesy of the work of cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera, whose copious use of wide-angle lenses, 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' attempts to conjure the ominous ambience of a delicate fairy tale cast under the darkest of storm clouds – or else a Kubrick horror film set in the world of Rainer Fassbinder.

 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 storybook 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 straightforward narrative route when his original script -- which would have revealed at the end that there had only in fact ever been one protagonist, each sister being merely a different side to the same personality -- was forbidden by the authorities, although Herz still manages to find ways of symbolically implying that idea throughout the film.

Herz made the film with no love for the project, and thought of it merely as an exercise in keeping his film-making muscles active during a time of censorship and repression. 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 editing 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 split personality plot outline, which, nowadays, seems rather more clichéd than it probably 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 begins to suffer 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, Viktoria experiences a sense almost akin to 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 own servant girls in order, presumably, to experience the rush all over again, by clumping the girl on the head with a rock from behind while she is bathing with her co-workers near the rocky beach! Then as the weeks pass, doubt and paranoia start to creep in and Viktoria 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 dose of 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 clad in a scarlet dress, 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 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 short story "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.

I was watching Morgiana via the UK DVD released by Second Run. 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 clearly 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, and was rarely seen on these shores for many years until the release of this DVD. All lovers of the Fantastique will be glad to have it available again and from what I've heard about Strickland’s latest, it will make the perfect companion piece to it.