Sunday, 9 May 2021


Top Cat

Czechoslovakia 1972
Directed by Juraj Herz
Second Sight DVD Region 2

Morgiana, directed by Juraj Herz, is a movie based on the novel Jessie and Morgiana by Alexander Grin although, since I’ve not read the novel, I can’t say how close it is to the original. Not that close I would suspect because, although the slightly jarring tonal shift of the last 20 minutes or so points to the possible reliance on the original narrative, there’s a really obvious difference which seems to imply the book and the film are two entirely different animals. That being that, while the book is about two sisters, Jessie and Morgiana... the film is about two twin sisters... the sweet but naive Klara and the evil, ill tempered Viktoria. Both these characters are played, quite skillfully, by the actress Iva Janzurová, who does a really wonderful job. In this version it’s Viktoria’s siamese cat which takes the name Morgiana. And, frankly, for a film titled after its feline character, the cat doesn’t really get a lot of significant screen time.

Okay, let’s talk about that cat for a second because I noticed that the majority of the shots in the first half an hour of the movie were all static, going into very minimal camera movement to follow the action when required... but not much motion at all. This is contrasted with the POV shots from the eyes of the cat, Morgiana. There are a few of these done with a distorting lens over the camera in the first half an hour (there are less appearances by the cat in the rest of the film) and that’s where the camera really takes of and goes into motion. Then, when the POV shots from the cat’s perspective drop off, there seems to be a little more movement in some of the ‘human only’ scenes as the film builds momentum. Which is a strange, mixed message of a choice, I thought and it thoroughly confused me. Especially when there are also scenes of the odd human using a similar kind of camera movement (with the camera higher from the ground, obviously) in the rest of the film... even going into a kind of psychedelic posterisation of the film stock during scenes in which the hallucinations of one of the sisters, Klara, are particularly intense. But, honestly, I couldn’t see much logic in the way things were shot here so... like I said... confused by the modus operandi which left me distracted for a while.

The director does make some good use of mirrors though, using them reflect each other and various characters throughout the film. Which is hard to do without catching the film crew but he seems to make this a rule of the film that many shots involving the sisters will make use of multiple mirrors, including some scenes where Iva Janzurová is playing both characters in the same shot. That actually hardly happens but the director does use a kind of split screen approach on the few times when it does but, also, he gets creative a couple of times and has one or other of them placed in the reflection of a mirror, which is a nice solution.

The films starts off strong with a pre-credits sequence involving lots of non-establishing shots taken far too close (and thus leaving the audience unsettled) of a funeral possession for the two sisters’ father. This is followed by a wonderful, animated credits sequence where a surrealist painting is tracked over by the camera with fades to black to throw the credits onto... and with Lubos Fiser’s relentless score pounding away all the while (the CD is worth a listen, by the way). We then get to the reading of the will, where both girls inherit property but Klara is much more favoured and Viktoria resents both this and the popularity of her bubbly sister with various men. And so she plots to kill her and procures a slow acting poison which makes the victim unwell and which takes four weeks to do its work. Kind of... I’m not going to reveal the final twist of this movie but that’s the basic plot set up for you.

And Iva Janzurová is absolutely brilliant in this. She plays Viktoria with a big black head of hair and Klara as a red head and the way she plays each contrasting character is quite effective. Although they have the same face, her characterisation of each is so different that I kept forgetting and thinking I was watching two different actors in the roles. Of course, my next big question was... well since the trick is so skillfully managed, why didn’t the director just use two different actresses and save himself all that time trying to work the camera so their faces would barely be seen on screen at the same time? I guess I’m not going to find the answer to that one anytime soon but, still, a quite extraordinary performance. I certainly didn’t like Viktoria one bit and... didn’t mind Klara as a character, despite the curse of the ‘stupidity of the rich’ which she seemed to have inherited as a manifest personality trait.

Toward the end of the movie, the film takes a bizarre viewpoint twist. Whereas before we have been with one or the other of the two sisters pretty much all the way through, the narrative breaks off to follow one of Klara’s suitors, a military man, as he spends time in a gambling house and then a brothel. Asides from showing his conviction that he is actually in love with Klara (he refuses the attentions of his ‘lady of the night’) it really doesn’t seem to have much purpose to it and serves only to bring him back into the narrative in time for the resolution to the story at the close of the film. Since it seems so out of place with the rest of the movie, I am forced to conclude that these scenes came directly from the novel and were thus included as a version of those. I might be wrong though... when I read the novel I’ll let you know (I couldn’t find a commercially released English translation for sale anywhere but, bizarrely, as I was looking for one, I came across a ‘free to download’ PDF of the full English translation so I guess it must be out of copyright, perhaps, since it was written in 1929).

And there’s not much more I can say about Morgiana. I found the acting and camerawork entrancing, the plot slim at best and the story mechanics to arrive at a solution that was less than expected (and I wondered why they had bothered with their two twist reveals at this point)... to be a little strained and perhaps a touch more ‘deux ex machina’ than I would have liked. I loved the music, though and enjoyed the film overall so, yeah, not my favourite of the five Czechoslovakian films I watched at the start of the year but certainly an interesting and entertaining one, for sure. Definitely worth a watch.

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