DVD Review: Juraj Herz's MORGIANA

morgiana_dvd_cover.jpgJuraj Herz is best known for The Cremator (1968), a grim Kafkaesque tale about the rise of fascism in 1930s Czechoslovakia. In 1972, Herz went in a completely different direction with MorgianaThe film -- now available from Second Run DVD in R2 PAL format -- is a weird take on 19th century gothic horror. Morgiana lacks the narrative or symbolic depth of The Cremator, but its visual richness and dramatic excesses make for a grand viewing experience.

Klára and Viktoria -- both parts are played by Iva Janžurová -- are sisters. Their father dies, leaving most of his property to Klára. To add insult to injury, Klára becomes involved with a man with whom Viktoria is smitten. Eventually Viktoria decides to eliminate Klára. Her murder plot does not go smoothly. 

Morgiana is based on novel by Russian author Alexansder Grin and plays with psychological themes of duality and madness
Klára and Viktoria are two sides of the same personality. Klára is the object of attention and desire while Vikotria jealously lives in her shadow. Vikotria wants what Klára has -- men, money, and property -- and she can only obtain it through killing her sister. Lurking at the boundaries of the story is Klára's cat Morgiana, who provides a third perspective through which to view the story. Yes, a cat is a character (albeit a silent one).

Explorations of familial betrayal and mental disintegration are old hat, but where Morgiana excels is in its visualization of this material. Some have invoked Ken Russell in describing the style. This is a fair assessment, but the dark melodrama of the late great Rainer Werner Fassbinder is also a strong reference point. Morgiana is directed in a highly exaggerated dramatic style. Every aspect -- camera work, performances, music, costume design -- is played for a heightened effect. 

Herz and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera display a particular zeal for using wide-angle lens to convey disorientation and skewed perspectives. The use of wide-angle is also combined with zoom, slo-mo, and color prism effects to emphasize (or overemphasize) what is happening within a scene. The ways in which these techniques are used -- zooming shots of character's distraught faces accompanied by stabbing orchestral cues -- are often the equivalent of having the actors scream "suspense" to the camera. 

At the center of the visual storm is Iva Janžurová. She expertly handles the dual roles. Her task is aided
by clever staging, costume design and makeup. Klára's bulky jewelry, thick platinum eye shadow, dark red lips, and a bulbous black wig look. On the other hand, Viktoria has blonde hair, wears lighter colors, and relies less on makeup. The stark visual difference assists in maintaining the illusion of a single actress playing two roles and also fits into the film's lurid visual scheme.

Second Run DVD released Morgiana in full frame 1.33:1. The main feature on this dual-layer disc is 97 minutes and streams at an average 7.99 mbpsThe source material is mostly clean with light vertical speckling from what is presumably a 35mm print. The cinematography heavily relies on natural light. Interior scenes mostly seem to be lit by windows, lamps, candlelight or fireplaces. The result is a shadowy high-contrast look with lighter colors piercing through mostly dark space. Although there aren't any other sources to compare it to (as far as I know), the image quality of this DVD is quite good and retains the character of the rich color scheme.

The audio is Dolby Digital mono with removable English subtitles. There are brief stretches of distortion, but the audio is otherwise fine. An essay booklet provides background on the both the film and Herz's career. The sole DVD extra is a 15 minute interview with the director.
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