Morgiana Review

Klára, the good sister, has pretty red hair, soulful eyes emphasized by dark liner and often dresses in white. She's in love with and hopes to marry a military lieutenant but also has another man who pines for her. With the recent death of her father Klára takes over residence of a large, servant-filled estate. Viktorie, the bad sister, wears black clothes that match her raven-colored hair and has a dour face heavily made up in grotesque fashion. She is unloved except, perhaps, by her cat Morgiana. Her father left Viktorie a smaller, less desirable home not far from the water. And because she is the evil one, Viktorie obtains a tasteless, odorless poison with the intent of slowly killing her sister in an untraceable manner so that she, and only she, can enjoy their considerable family wealth. There are, of course, a few things that arise for which Viktorie had not planned.

Juraj Herz's Morgiana can be characterized in terms of narrative by its insertion of the surreal and dark, wicked hints of humor into a somewhat simple fairy tale story. It's easy to be reminded of Lewis Carroll and his Alice characters in this regard, though plenty of lesser known works could come to mind also. I quite like and agree with the mention of Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? that's on the back of the DVD case. A Gothic quality also exists prominently in the overall mood and texture of the picture. Maybe it's a little Jane Eyre as produced by Val Lewton and directed with a touch of playfulness by the Robert Altman who made Images and 3 Women. Edgar Allan Poe is another who's name-checked, both in the Second Run synopsis and as a point of reference to Russian source material writer Aleksandr Grin in Dr. Ian Conrich's included booklet essay.

Visually and stylistically, Morgiana is a different beast and has the distinction of having been photographed by Jaroslav Kucera. Recent Second Run releases of Kucera's work on Daisies and Diamonds of the Night prove that Kucera had one of the more unique cinematographic eyes of his era. For Morgiana, he used deliriously odd camera perspectives at times, including some from the point of view of the feline title character. A showdown between Viktorie and the attempted extortionist who sold her the poison is set amid steep cliffs and crashing waves and almost engenders vertigo in the viewer, giving a real sense of the possible danger involved but also the inherent peculiarity to the scene that's unfolding. Even more distinct is the use of optical effects to recreate the hallucinogenic, waking dream state that Klára experiences after taking the poison. Smeared rainbow colors represent the not quite reality, not quite dreaming perception that comes to define part of the film. This otherworldly dimension wrinkles Morgiana into something abstract and less penetrable.

The technical sophistication of director Juraj Herz, who had earlier made The Cremator, and the performances of actress Iva Janzurová make it easy for the viewer to forget that both Klára and Viktorie are played by the same person. Some of this separation exists via the physical appearances of the two characters but the subtleties work because of Janzurová's acting. It's marvelous. Without venturing into the evil twin hysterics of many a soap opera, she extends herself into distinct personae separated by basic attributes like kindness and affection. At the same time, and again beyond matters of resemblance, the women register when interacting with one another as having spent a lifetime enmeshed in pretty much the same sort of dynamic where Viktorie always feels slighted. Her contempt must stretch back some time as there's a conversation between two sisters that makes clear Viktorie had gouged the eyes out of a doll modeled after Klára and tossed it in the attic.

If there are weaknesses to be found in Morgiana then they probably come from the film's final third. Taking place mostly at night, this section keeps part of the natural fairy tale progression of where the story had been headed and also slips in a little surprise or two at the end. It stunts the narrative a little, though, as the film moves from creating a world of dark wonder to narrowly trying to satisfy its earlier promises. The conclusion is then on the silly side but still done in a consistent fashion to what came earlier. Still, make no mistake, Morgiana is a massively fun experience as it unfolds. It's Gothic horror mixed with fantasy and done reasonably straight. Nerds and snobs alike should be able to find plenty to love in the film.

The Disc

Second Run continues its commitment to Czech film with this edition of Morgiana, which is advertised as being available for the first time in the English speaking world. Given spine number 050, the release is a small landmark for the label. It's a dual-layered disc in the PAL format and not region-coded.

The progressive transfer is in what is billed as the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. There are obvious bits of dirt and speckles in the print throughout but these are a minor distraction at worst. The overall appearance is very filmlike and natural, and makes you feel like you've stepped into a repertory cinema to see the picture instead of relying on some form of digital wizardry to watch it. No obvious manipulation has taken place and the heaviness of the image fits the movie quite well. In lighter scenes, detail is strong but much of this gets lost in the darker section which comprises most of the last third of Morgiana. The visual effects used for Klára's waking dreams look dated but groovy.

The restored Czech mono track is spread across two channels. Only a few mild hints of static hinder it. The emphatic score used in the film makes an impression while dialogue comes through clearly and at a consistent volume. Like the picture quality, the audio has a flat, unfussy charm about it. English subtitles are optional, white in color.

An exclusive interview (15:28) with director Juraj Herz is a supplement that truly feels like a bonus to the film. Herz discusses his career, mentioning The Cremator and focusing particularly on Morgiana. I found it interesting to hear that Herz didn't take the making of Morgiana very seriously, that he mainly did it to keep his filmmaking skills sharp. There's also some talk of the political situation that involved Czech directors at the time.

The booklet that accompanies this release is 12 pages long. It features an essay by Daniel Bird entitled "Juraj Herz - An Introduction" and an additional piece written by Dr. Ian Conrich that focuses on both The Cremator and Morgiana. Both are helpful reads and enlighten without overdoing it.

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