Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Morgiana (1973)


If there were two defining characteristics of art cinema in the 1960’s then it was a need to challenge prevailing orthodoxies (both in terms of film form, filmic traditions, and politics) and to reconstitute the theme of national identity in the wake of tumultuous world events. It became a decade of national cinema and new waves. The most prominent occurred in France and was represented by the films of former critics such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. In Britain the ‘Angry Young Man’ impulse gave rise to the ‘kitchen sink’ realism of films such as Room at the Top (1959), A Taste of Honey (1961), and This Sporting Life (1963). While the young French filmmakers were concerned with challenging the so called ‘Tradition of Quality’ and pushing the boundaries of film form, the British filmmakers were occupied with issues of class and realism. In Japan filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, Shohei Imamura, and Susumu Hani contributed to a wave of audacious politically motivated films that interrogated questions of gender and the recent occupation. The influence of Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave had a profound effect on a generation of South American filmmakers, and tremors of seismic activity could be detected in Cuba, Argentina, and most notably Brazil’s ‘Cinema Novo’. One of the least written about areas of activity occurred in the Eastern bloc countries; Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia all enjoyed brief but brilliant moments of filmmaking sunlight, before the boot of communism ground out the creativity. Morgiana is considered one of the last flowerings of the Czech New Wave and is both a brilliant and frustrating viewing experience.

Morgiana was based on Russian writer Alexander Grin’s 1929 novel Jessie and Morgiana. Grin was heavily influenced by the fevered and restless universe of Edgar Allen Poe, and to his credit, director Juraj Herz maintains the dreamlike and illusory feel of the novel. It was incredibly important to capture this surreal ambience, because Herz was forced to excise from his screenplay (which he wrote with Vladimír Bor) a key dramatic plot point - namely that the two lead characters are in fact one and the same. Quite why the state felt that a film exploring the subject of multiple personality disorder would be dangerous and transgressive remains something of a mystery. But a key result of this interference was Herz’ decision to emphasise style and aesthetics over storytelling. As an exercise in stylisation Morgiana was peerless in the Czech cinema of the day, but the film still found itself banned from cinemas. Morgiana signals its colourful intent with a vivid and vibrant title sequence showcasing some fine examples of surrealist art. The film constantly emphasises its construction and possesses a self consciousness that, although irritating at times, has to be admired. The death of a patriarch off screen and the ensuing division of an inheritance amongst two sisters indicates we are in far from radical narrative terrain, and by and large the film plays out as a rather contrived Victorian melodrama. Contrivance comes in the shape of an expedient and undetectable poison which evil Klára (Iva Janazurová) obtains in order to eliminate her sister Viktorie (also played by Janazurová).

Klára is a wonderful creation, and one that takes villainy to a new height of outlandish absurdity. She is constantly bedecked in black as she seethes and plots against the popular sister who we always see in white. The symbolism of the colours is obvious which reduces the dramatic impact somewhat, but nothing can detract from the obvious relish that Janazurová gets from indulging in the pure wickedness of the character. In addition to slowly poisoning her sister out of jealousy, she kicks a blackmailer of a cliff edge (an event which comes back to haunt her), and injures a servant girl with a well aimed rock. It is all intentionally overblown and embellished, and while some viewers may have a problem with such exaggerated melodramatic theatrics I really enjoyed the performance. The technique of using one actress to play both sisters actually works very well, and on occasion the illusion is very well maintained. The theme of doubling runs throughout the movie, and is enhanced with the inspired use of mirrors. It all contributes to a saturated ambience of gothic morbidity which is occasionally lightened with the psychedelic colours that come to represent Viktorie’s subjective view of the world when under the influence of the slow acting poison.

The attention to period detail is impressive, but strangely enough the film offers no true indication of when it is set, or where it is set. The narrative is not anchored in a linear time frame at all, and with an hallucinating central character, even spatial representations are questioned. The calmness in this ocean of storms is Klára’s pet cat Morgiana who is so prominent she is given a point of view shot which is represented on screen with a fish eye lens and a playful musical leitmotif. The cat observes, but does not influence, until the very last minute, when its sudden return contributes to the protracted downfall of Klára. Unfortunately Morgiana doesn’t quite cohere, and this is largely due to the cavalier approach to plotting and storytelling that the screenplay takes. An exercise in style is all well and good, but the style has to serve something, or it simply becomes hollow and meaningless aesthetics. Morgiana is a fascinating film, but one that constantly runs the risk being a visually beautiful, but ultimately pointless film.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. I've never seen this film nor, it must be said, viewed many titles at all from the Czech New Wave beyond 'Black Peter' and 'Loves for a Blonde' (and would they be considered too early to be part of the movement)?

    Certainly an interesting choice, Shaun - and reading a little bit more about the film elsewhere there appeared to be some loose comparisons made to Bava's 'Lisa and the Devil'.

    Is this title readily available on DVD? Thanks!

  2. Hi there Johnny - thanks for commenting on this one! I anticipated zero response to it. It got about 1/3 of the views that DEMON SEED that tells you where its at on here. This is a real obscurity, but there is a DVD distributor operating out of the UK called Second Run which specialise in a lot of the Eastern Bloc 60/70's 'New Wave' films - here is a link to their site;

    I can see the comparison with LISA AND THE DEVIL, but I think there is a more obvious influence...WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? Though whether the director was actually aware of Alrdrich's film I'm not sure.

    Here is link to the MORGIANA DVD on Amazon if it helps.

    I'm glad there is someone receptive to these reviews...cheers mate!

  3. Thanks, Shaun. I'll check out that link. :)

    Damn Amazon UK: they dropped free shipping to Australia a week or so ago. I'd doubled my orders over the past year because of it! :angry:


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