Monday, April 7, 2014

Morgiana (1972)

Morgiana, by Slovak director Juraj Herz, is a seldom spoken of curio from the Czechoslovak New Wave that’s heavily stylized with regards to its visuals and mood but is straightforward with its story and might feel a little influenced by the ‘Grand Dame Guignol’ horror of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Much like Poe’s The Black Cat, there is an escalating sense of guilt in its protagonist, aristocratic villainess Viktorie (Iva Janzurová), that’s not particularly out of remorse or regret for her crime, but from paranoia, constant annoying reminders of her misdeed, and fear of being found out, which is where I think a lot of the suspense comes from.

I like that there is a lot of appeal to its detestable, unsympathetic villain. Viktorie (Viki) is probably one of my new favorite villains. She emanates a wicked aura, primarily due to her excessively evil gothic look that pretty much gives away the nature of her game at first glance. Janzurová's performance is frightening, stellar, and versatile. I say versatile because she also plays Viki’s sister, Klára. The personalities and appearances between the sisters are like night and day, and I don’t know if I was a bit naïve at the time, but after watching the whole movie for the first time, I had no idea the same actress played both sisters.

The music is by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders composer Lubos Fiser and it is exquisite, with a main theme that has a terrifying foreboding in its melody, which I think works as a leitmotif for Viki and her cat, Morgiana.

The story concerns the conditional inheritance granted to Klára and Viki after the recent funeral of their father. Klára must have been the favorite because she inherits the villa and all bank accounts and shares, while Viki only gets the country house. It really isn’t Klára’s fault fortune shines on her; she’s also very innocent as well as respectful and kind to her less favored sister. The men are more interested in her, too. A tarot reading convinces Viki that she is the Black Queen, deserving great fortune, while an obstacle, the Queen of Hearts, stands in her way. Not surprisingly, Viki acquires a slow acting, unidentifiable poison and slips it to her sister. Klára’s health slowly declines as Viki’s sense of guilt increases.

Something most will remember from this movie is the large but fabulous looking Victorian feathered hats the upper class females in the movie wear. They seem oversized and almost look like they are ready to fall off or be blown away by the wind at times, and I do think the excessive gothic feel this movie has does owe a lot to those excessive feathered hats.

Color is used to define and contrast characters, and it isn’t subtle at all. The good and evil human duality is an obvious theme, a la Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but split into two different characters, with the light and dark sister, yin and yang, or, given their high social standing and nobility, a possible black queen and red queen in what could be compared to a game of chess.

Scenes with Viki in the attic reflect her paranoia and unease but are also an exemplification of her vanity and conceit, reveling in ancestral garments and jewels, without the slightest bit of remorse for her sister she’s poisoned. She is a psychopath. These scenes in the attic, though detached a little from the central story, are some of the best, very chilling and beautiful.

An odd and creepy part where Viki takes off her luscious black wig reveals a more accurate appearance that resembles her tainted soul, unveiling the grime beneath the grandeur. It reminds me of when Captain Hook lost his wig in Hook.

The plot rides on a simple yet effective idea, and at the same time the stylistic flair is top notch. I love the visual of the gothic noble lady, holding her cat, walking through the country house sectors with her loyal house servants following in a kind of single file. Another stylistic treat, which would have Argento applauding, is the roaming cat cam point-of-view shots.

Disorienting camera prism effects are used to give a subjective point-of-view from Klára as her central nervous system seems to be deteriorating from the slow-acting poison. It’s nothing too technically spectacular, but it gets the point across and translates her exhaustion into the viewer a little. Hallucinations of herself, or maybe a kind of nonexistent third sister in red, are creepy and surreal but are nonetheless a little inconclusive as to its significance. Perhaps a suggestion of schizophrenia?

Morgiana shares a similar aesthetic to another Czechoslovak New Wave film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, but the story is so much more straightforward, here. It’s a little more theatre dramatic than Herz’ previous disturbing political thriller The Cremator. The ending is good, if perhaps not the most climactic; I like the way the cat was involved, but it probably could have been a little more twisty and shocking.

There are a number of additional characters to supplement the central story, such as a persistent blackmailer (Nina Divisková) throwing a wrench into Viki’s plans, as well as a love interest for Klára, Marek (Josef Abrhám), in what does amount to an authentic love connection. While Morgiana may not be the most exciting at times, it is very well made, with an imaginative yet convincing Victorian era setting and beautiful gothic ambiance. It may roll heavy on the melodrama side, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

© At the Mansion of Madness

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