The Forgotten: Slow Poison

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When Federico Fellini, arguing with a diehard neo-realist about the ending of Il bidone (What, it was demanded, was a troupe of seemingly medieval peasants, doing in this post-war crime story?), received the backing of his assistant director—"You should keep it because it's beautiful!"—he rejected the supportive comment. "No—not because it's beautiful, but because it's meaningful beauty."

What I've been wrestling with recently is the question of whether meaningful beauty is to be found in the works of Slovak filmmaker Juraj Herz. I think it can, but not in a straightforward way. Since Herz started life as an art director, it's of course tempting to see the pictorial charms of his films as essentially decorative, prettifying. But there's more going on. Maybe not consistently, but interestingly.

The first Herz I saw was The Virgin and the Monster (1978), which is a straight re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast tale which manages to behave as if the earlier Cocteau film didn't exist. This is both a virtue (genuflecting before La belle et la bête would just be embarrassing and distracting) and a vice (it at times feels like the film is in stubborn denial of its own redundancy). The film is incredibly sumptuous, veering from kitsch to poetry, but doesn't quite manage to find its own reading of the story, apart from adding some mud and grime to the "real world" scenes and some blood and horror to the fantasy.

But Morgiana, made in 1971 shortly after communist censorship was fully imposed, is more suggestive and interesting. A tale of a two sisters, both played by the same actress, Iva Janžurová, it's a stylized thriller that got Herz blacklisted for two years because the censors couldn't accept the presence of the morbid and disturbing elements of romanticism. Even in its present form, the film is not as strange and irrational as Herz had intended: as one sister poisons the other to death out of little more than spite, Herz originally planned a revelation that would show both women are really one and the same, a suicidal case of multiple personality disorder.

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As it stands, the relatively simple narrative suggests nothing more than one of those Hollywood melodramas where Bette Davis or her chum Olivia DeHavilland play twins, preferably of the "one good, one evil" variety. Janžurová is given two distinct but equally extreme makeup styles, so that despite her arresting features she's not immediately recognizable as the same person. The 1971 version of Edwardian costuming is elaborate and over-the-top, as is all the design. And then there's the cat.

Morgiana the seal-point Siamese is a witness to the evil Iva's poisoning scheme (she chooses a particularly slow-acting and painful toxin), and Herz serves up crazily distorting wide-angle lens POV shots that swoop through the elegant interiors of "Green Flute," Iva's opulent home. The film's other POVs of note are the color-drenched, bleeding FX shots representing the poisoned Iva's delirious vision. The two seem to blend at times in a way that makes no literal sense, but takes the film's visual scheme into surreal territory.

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Evil Iva's trouble is that she doesn't trust the woman who supplied her poison, so although her virtuous sister duly becomes ill, she isn't sure if the condition will prove fatal. Attempting to test the poison on a dog with a dish of milk, she is interrupted, and returns to learn that the milk may have been drunk by Morgiana or by her servant's little son. Now all three must be watched for signs of illness. A limbo-like state of irresolution and uncertainty deteriorates into apparent hallucinations, and the supplier of poison becomes a blackmailer who must be disposed of...

Despite the censor's lopping off half the plot, and Herz's own claim that he lost enthusiasm and directed the film as a purely technical exercise, the amputated plot twist winds tendrils back into the surviving film, mainly through the unexplained double casting, and through the giddy, psychedelic visuals which push the story into some kind of psychological terrain which the plot itself doesn't ever acknowledge. Herz has succeeded as a smuggler, concealing within his little fable some dark, impenetrable secret which even when unpeeled via the film's production history, remains mysterious, lurking in smoky shadow beyond the threshold of rationality.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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