White Bird in a Blizzard, 2014

Gregg Araki is one of my favourite directors, and has been since I discovered his work in my late teens (or early twenties). I prefer his films on the more bizarre end of the spectrum (Nowhere, The Doom Generation, Kaboom, etc.), but I still love his less strange films. So, I was excited when White Bird in a Blizzard was announced. The premise sounded interesting (I love mysteries!) and it was going to star Eva Green? How could that get any better. It wasn’t well received, but Araki’s films rarely seem to be (except maybe Mysterious Skin) and his work falls definitely in the Love or Hate category (or, perhaps, ‘get it’ or ‘don’t get it’). I think it’s hard to explain to those who don’t ‘get’ Araki’s work, why his films are so enjoyable and so great. (Maybe someone else has the capacity to describe their appeal beyond flailing and gushing, but I sure don’t).

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So I went into White Bird with caution, but I shouldn’t have because I loved it. It’s not surprising – usually when it comes to my favourites I’m rarely disappointed. I’m not particularly discerning or critical, especially when it comes to both mysteries and movies about teen girls. The story centres on Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley), whose mother, Eve (Eva Green), goes missing when she’s seventeen years old. The story is told in scenes from the present day (1988), flashbacks of Eve’s earlier life narrated by Kat’s voiceover, before taking us forward to 1991, with still no word of Eve’s whereabouts.

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It’s photographed beautifully, has a dreamlike quality to it, and the soundtrack is superb (as always). Araki definitely knows how to make a stylish film. I love that he is equally capable of crafting the absurd atmospheres of Nowhere and The Doom Generation as he is something less ‘out there’, but equally surreal in its own way, as White Bird.

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The performances were all fantastic, particularly Shailene Woodley and Eva Green (who always steals the show IMHO).  Eva Green really was the highlight of the film, playing bored, and deeply unhappy, housewife Eve, without being a cliche. Chris Meloni was really good, too. The changes in his character were so subtle. I like that the tone of the film was really different to most mysteries. It wasn’t particularly creepy, or unsettling in an overt way, and the sense of loss is quite subtle. The mystery itself is not particularly substantial, nor did I find it overly shocking, but that’s fine. The rest of the journey made up for it, for me. It’s not an edge-of-your seat thriller but I found beauty in its quietness.

There is definitely a distance, perhaps even a coldness to Woodley’s character, but as someone who finds it difficult to connect on an emotional level (to other people, anyway, no issues connecting emotionally to films or fictional characters), I didn’t see that as a bad thing. And with the way Eve treated Kat, it’s easy to see why she would block the way her mother’s disappearance affected her, just brushed it off as another ‘crazy’ thing her mother had done. (Instead of accepting it as a painful experience that actually happened to her).

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Once again, I’m fairly certain I’m in the minority with loving this film, but I’m OK with that (I’ve recently realised I have a tendency to fall for films that were panned by audiences and critics alike). But, as much as I loved this, I really do prefer when Araki goes for anarchic and absurd.

Morgiana. 1972

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After watching and falling deeply in love with The Duke of Burgundy, I decided to seek out some of the films Peter Strickland cited as influences for his film. The first (and still, to date, the only) I watched was Morgiana, a 1972 Czech Gothic thriller, directed by Juraj Herz, about a woman who jealously plots the murder of her better liked sister (both roles played by Iva Janzurová). I should preface this with two things: writing this was very challenging for me as I find movies like this tend to be outside my comprehension in any kind of ‘academic’ way; I’m not familiar enough with films of this ilk. But I loved it and wanted to write about it.

Morgiana is a histrionic fairy tale, a fevered dream set in an unspecified European region, brought to life with lush colours and delightfully gaudy sets and costumes. It opens with sisters Klára and Viktoria being instructed by a lawyer on the contents of their recently deceased father’s will: each sister gets one of his properties.

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Klara inherits the airy, pretty estate but Viktoria gets a supposedly haunted manor. This sets the tone for the two sisters’ personalities and how they are received by others. It is evident from the outset that Viktoria is jealous of Klára, who is easily amiable, cheerful and well-liked by everyone. Viktoria is the polar opposite of Klara, manifested in their equally different looks.

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Both women appear virginal but where Klára is ‘pure’ in the fashion of a fairy-tale princess, akin to Snow White, Viktoria is ‘repressed’, petty and jealous. She is more like the evil virgin queen, ice cold and remote with a deep mean streak (albeit more nervy than any evil queen). We see this in a scene where Viktoria sneaks up on some of her servant girls, bathing in the ocean, carefree and scantily clad, and gleefully throws a rock at one’s head. It’s interesting to think that’s it not just a matter of the virgin/whore dichotomy but that ‘virgin’ women are presented in different ways: it is either a virtue or a sickness.

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It is a testament to Janzurová’s acting and Herz’s editing that I often forgot that Klára and Viktoria were played by the same actress. I found the editing and some of the camera ‘tricks’ to be quite interesting, if disorienting, such as filming from Viktoria’s cat’s (the eponymous Morgiana) point of view at times. The first time it happened, I immediately knew the camera had taken on the point of view of a cat, not only from the eye level but the movement which couldn’t be anything other than feline.

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The creepiness of Morgiana is more often in the dreamlike atmosphere and intense score (by Lubos Fiber) than in actual content. (Although a woman plotting to murder her sister isn’t exactly not creepy). It is more a psychological exploration than a straight-up horror. Even Viktoria seems a reluctant murderess at first, when she uses the slow-acting poison she procured and immediately tries to get Klára to drink from a different glass. However, once Klara does drink she seems gleeful but nervous. She retires to her own estate, where she becomes increasingly paranoid, going so far as to test the poison on a dog (and then not knowing if the dog, a servant’s son or her own beloved cat drank the concoction).

As Klára descends into illness, she begins to hallucinate another version of herself, in a flame-red dress (reminiscent of Viktoria’s red nightgown), who is more like the petty Viktoria than the amiable Klára herself. Mirrors are just one of the motifs used to hint at a fragmenting personality and unsettled psyche (apparently Herz originally wanted the film to end showing that both sisters were just aspects of one woman’s split personality, but couldn’t because of the censors at the time). There are also some kaleidoscopic scenes, that look like a 3D film viewed without glasses, that Klára sees in her fevered state.

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The 1970s does Edwardian costumes were swoon inducing and that OTT makeup was to die for. (Pardon the pun).

There was one scene that reminded me a bit of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (a scene where one of the sisters is running along some stairs or a road by a beach or similar that reminded me of the repeated scene in Meshes). I’m not sure that this was an intentional inspiration for the film, but I’d only watched Meshes recently, so my mind made the connection. The dreamlike quality of Morgiana fits well with the actual dream represented in Meshes, though.

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The make-up of my teen goth dreams.

There is another beautiful, mesmerising scene in which Viktoria is looking through an old trunk, and she pulls out all these gauzy, delicate dresses, letting them float about her as they drift to the floor. The chiaroscuro lighting lends an eery atmosphere, as the dresses become ghostly forms. Strickland lifted this scene to great effect for The Duke of Burgundy.

Morgiana is a strange film that had me captivated throughout the entirety of its running time. It’s definitely one that I want to revisit and think about some more, in the future.