A woman clad in black, starkly contrasted against the sun-bleached seashore, skulks like a cat between the rocks after disposing of a vial of poison. She spots her servant girls below, laughing and swimming naked in the sea. Jealous of their youth and vivacity, she picks up a rock and hurls it at the back of one of their heads, crippling a girl for life…
A few years after Juraj Herz gave us one of the great movie villains in The Cremator, this act of sheer malice is just a tea break in the murderous schemes of another memorable antagonist in Morgiana. A monstrously melodramatic adaptation of Alexander Grin’s novel Jessie and Morgiana, it is the tale of two diametrically opposed sisters. Klara Trangan, dressed all in white, is simple, naive, and kindhearted – annoyingly so – while her gloomy, covetous sister Vitoria lurks around like a grudging shadow. Both are played by Iva Janžurová, and the illusion is pulled off so well through acting, costume, make-up and camera tricks that it took me half the movie to realise it was the same actor.
Things kick off after the Trangan sisters’ father dies, and his wealth and estate are divided between them in his will. They are both very well provided for, but there is little doubt that Klara got the sweetest inheritance, receiving a sprawling villa and its grounds overlooking the sea, while Viktoria gets some land and a haunted hunting lodge. To further inflame Viktoria’s grievances, Klara also attracts the attention of two handsome suitors – the grave lawyer in charge of their father’s will, Glenar (Petr Čepek) and gallant military man Marek (Josef Abrhám).
Viktoria retreats to her hunting lodge to sulk with her cat, Morgiana, where she hatches a plot to kill her sister with a slow-acting poison that is impossible to trace. So slow-acting, in fact, that she doubts whether it is working at all until Klara starts experiencing hallucinations and a unslakeable thirst. By which time she has also tried it out on a servant woman’s dog to make sure she wasn’t sold a lemon.
Rumours of Klara’s maladies reach Otylie (Nina Divíšková), the purveyor of the poison, who then shows up wearing a very big hat to blackmail Viktoria. Unfortunately for her, she underestimates how murderously batshit crazy the wannabe poisoner is…
I can see how this storyline could have been adapted into a serious melodrama, but what we get instead is an excess of over-the-top gothic camp. And that is definitely a good thing, even though the director didn’t care for the film. Herz claimed it was an exercise to keep his directing skills sharp and had little love for the final product. Perhaps his disillusionment came from the interference of the authorities, who forbade him to proceed with the story’s central twist – both sisters were meant to be the same person. Personally, I hate that trope and roll my eyes every time it gets trotted out for the umpteenth time, so I’m glad it got the chop because it feels less of a cheat this way.
Herz may have not liked Morgiana but it has since built a small cult following among aficionados of weird movies, and Peter Strickland names it as one of the primary influences for his sensuous The Duke of Burgundy. One aspect Strickland borrowed is the idea of an elusive location and era – while Morgiana is clearly a period piece, it is set in a phantasmagorial coastal realm where it is difficult to pin down when and where it is supposedly set, adding to its mysterious vibe.
Herz busts out all his favourite tricks and the film is brimming with gleefully malicious energy. He uses his trademark fisheye lens to create a sense of madness and elicits some silent-era histrionics from Janžurová in her twin role. We also get treated to some POV shots from the cat Morgiana’s perspective, while Luboš Fišer provides a playful pastiche of bombastic suspense scores.
The whole thing is sumptuously shot by stellar New Wave cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, and production designer Zbyněk Hloch, set designer Jiří Rulík and costumer designer Irena Greifová do an amazing job of creating a decadent, sensuous netherworld bursting with intricate detail and fabulous costumes. Not a bad line up for a movie that the director regards as a bit of a lark…
Morgiana loses its way a little after a deliciously wicked first hour, mainly because we spend more time with Abrhám and Čepek as Klara’s rival suitors. Both are fine in quite unremarkable roles, although Čepek feels a bit wasted, especially after his heavyweight performance in Adelheid a few years earlier. Plus time with the guys is time spent away from Viktoria and her evil plans, which is time wasted for me – much like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, she is a movie psychopath I loved spending every second with, and I would happily watch a whole trilogy of her scheming, sneering and murdering.
Ultimately Morgiana might not amount to much beyond a riot of crazy melodrama and eye-popping visuals, but when the ride is as wild as this, what’s not to love?