Monday, August 15, 2022

“One of Those Church-Going Gigolos” - Savage Lagoon (1999) - Film #235

How frequently have you asked yourself, "I would like to see a combination of Zombie Lake (1981) and a Hallmark romance movie, only without any zombies"? Look no further than 1999's Savage Lagoon (released in the U.S. in 2007), known less exploitatively as Bohemian Moon. 

Many of your universe's critics have not reviewed Savage Lagoon, so for once they have little disparaging to say. However, there are exceptions. Reviewer godzillaismylife writes, "This may be the worst piece of garbage i have ever lay eyes on." Reviewer raulgomez21, in a mostly positive review, writes, "some of the Actors could use some Acting classes." And reviewer bandsaboutmovie writes, "This movie feels like walking through a lake and your feet get caught in mud and you struggle to walk."

Of course, these reviewers miss the point of the romantic Savage Moon. Read on for a more balanced (and correct) appreciation...

The film begins with a man and woman riding horses through a quiet forest. One narrator, a young woman, begins her voice-over: “1948 Bohemia. It was a fatal year for our family, the Rudlovs. This is the way my grandmother would always begin her story. I loved to listen to her.”

The second narrator, presumably the first narrator’s grandmother, picks up the narration with her own voice-over: “Teresa was enchanted by the charming yet mysterious mountains. But most of all, by the savage lagoon, where she used to spend every free moment.”

The film cuts to the young woman and man making love nude beside the titular lagoon. The grandmother continues to narrate, telling us that when the moonlight hits the lake, an evil spirit “charges its power.” This takes the form of lightning striking Teresa as she swims. Teresa vanishes in the lake.

The grandmother continues her narration. The day after Teresa disappeared, the communists took over and kicked the family out of their palace, forcing the grandmother to emigrate to New York City with her baby boy.

Then the narration switches back to the younger woman: “She dedicated all her life to raising my father, and then myself.”

The movie proper begins with the younger narrator, Ilona, an aspiring ballet dancer who works as an exotic dancer at a place called Discoland (she does not, as far as I can determine, have another job as a steel worker, which I understand is common among such workers). She tells her friend that she met a handsome man at church, but he was with another girl. Her friend dismisses him: “Jerk! Maybe he’s one of those church-going gigolos.”

At one point during her dance routing, Ilona loses her gigantic gold ring, which prompts a flashback to her days as a child practicing ballet during which the story of the ring, given to her grandmother back in Budapest and then passed on to Ilona. The child tells her grandmother, “When I wear it, I feel like I’m in our castle. Can you understand that?” Her grandmother dashes her dreams: “The communists will never return our castle.”

Back in the present, Ilona watches a news broadcast about riots in Czechoslovakia otherthrowing the communists. “A new political reform?” Ilona mumbles while brushing her teeth. “They’re gone! Bohemia’s free!” She tells a painting of her grandmother, “I’m going to get your castle back!”

Of course, an overjoyed Ilona flies immediately to Bohemia. She takes a bus to her ancestral homeland, waving to the bus driver as she climbs out, and then meets two American men in a horse-drawn car singing “O Susanna” who give her a ride (though they fail to ask where she is going).

Meanwhile, a young man named Jan with a distinctly British accent is hunting birds in the forest with his friends.

Eventually, the Americans drop Ilona off at the lagoon. “Here you are, little lady. Lost Rock.”

“I thought it was called Savage Lagoon.”

“Well, you’re right. It is called Savage Lagoon but it’s also called Lost Rock because there used to be a huge rock out there that was so big. It was as big as the lagoon is deep.”

“How deep is it?” Ilona asks.

“I don’t think anyone has ever been to the bottom of it before, except for maybe the creature. You do know about the legend, don’t you?”

Ilona nods. “When the moonlight hits the surface and its fullness appears on the lake, the surface begins to open and the evil spirit charges with power.”

Ilona continues walking to her ancestral castle, which is a few paces away from the lagoon.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, the inner door of the castle is locked, so Ilona dejectedly walks away and returns to the lagoon. Although she only stands on a rock, she is immediately ogled by Jan (who calls her a nymph in response to his friend’s “Oo la la”) and his hunter friends.  

This leads to a lounge song playing on the soundtrack as Jan moves closer to Ilona on his horse—a song so beautiful I must transcribe the lyrics here:

My heart yearns for you
Don’t know how to say I love you
Can’t even say the simple word

I was thinking
Of what it’s like to be with you
I feel like I’m sinking
To your beauty wrapped around my love
Toss me a line before I drown

In my weakness for not loving you
I think I love you
I’m pretty sure I do

As Ilona wades into the water (exposing, of course, her novelty underwear, on which is written “New York”), Jan interrupts her. After some preliminary banter, he says, “I thought I might give you a ride.”

Referring to his hunting hobby, Ilona demurs: “No, thank you. You might come and hunt me down. Maybe stick my head up on your wall.”

Jan walks away, but as he does so the sky fills with lightning. He turns back to her and tells her the water can be very dangerous, and some believe there might be a monster.

“Hunters are the monsters,” she quips as he rides away. She wades back into the water, but gets scared when she sees the water rippling.

At the local pub, which plays jaunty Dixieland jazz, Jan meets his girlfriend, a barmaid. The two immediately go outside and start making out in fairly awkward fashion.

In an unusual sequence, as his friends eat their dinner at the pub, Jan interrupts the Dixieland music to take a clarinet from a band member and play a slow, melancholy tune. This prompts two of his friends, who find his musical gesture hilarious, to begin dancing. This scene takes approximately five minutes and includes Jan’s complete, uninterrupted performance, which receives raucous applause.

The next day, Ilona, who has apparently spent the night in the woods, is chased through the forest by a wild boar while jaunty music plays on the soundtrack. Fortunately for Ilona, Jan rides up and shoots at the boar. He tells her she can get the key to the castle at City Hall and she tells him her name, which results in him treating her deferentially and inviting her to lunch.

Jan takes him to his house to meet Jan’s grandfather, who resembles an Eastern European Jack Warden, as well as Jan’s father. (The reasons for everyone speaking English with different accents—grandfather’s is Czech, father’s is American, and Jan’s is British—are never explained.) 

At night, a backpacking couple skinny-dips in the savage lagoon—or more accurately, the woman swims nude while the man watches. Lightning again strikes and the woman flails in the water, taken by the cursed lagoon. Though her companion survives, he is never heard from again, and he never contacts the authorities.

Ilona and Jan visit City Hall, where they are ridiculed for wanting to take possession of the Rudlov castle. Ilona presents documentation of ownership, but the bureaucrat (who is painted as evil because he yells at a dog) requires her to be a citizen. The only solution is for her to buy the castle, which has been put up for sale by the city.

Elsewhere, at night, a silver-haired man fights a wolf in the forest.

Ilona and Jan then ride through another part of the forest while another romantic ballad plays, a ballad I am again honor-bound to transcribe:

I was dreaming
Standing on the moon with you
Looking down at our Heaven
And this creation so bright and blue
This may be our destiny
Hold my hand until it’s true
Think it’s for real
Couldn’t be more true
Bohemian moon

They reach the savage lagoon. “Nobody comes here but my grandfather,” Jan tells Ilona, though of course this is clearly false, as many people have visited the savage lagoon during the course of the film. After tossing her own hat Mary-Tyler-Moore-style onto the edge of the lagoon, Ilona says, “All I need…is love.”

The couple begins to have sex on the shore of the savage lagoon until lightning strikes and they hear the growling of the lagoon monster, though they see nothing. Ilona picks up her hat and tosses it farther into the lagoon, where it is pulled beneath the surface of the water.

Ilona and Jan take shelter from the lightning storm in a cave that leads into a labyrinth of tunnels. Running from a mouse, she slams into a door, which opens to reveal the basement of the castle. Ilona says, “Oh my God!” as she is overjoyed to have broken into the property she feels is rightfully, if illegally, hers. 

When they find a bottle of wine, Ilona asks, “Do you think they’re still good?”

Jan quips eloquently (if misogynistically), “Unlike women, the older the better! Or so they say.” This earns a chuckle from Ilona.

They make their way upstairs and drink the wine in the lap of luxury. Ilona says, “God. I’m going home soon. Back to the city full of smog, greed, and competition. Begging for a job again.”

Jan talks to a portrait of Ilona’s grandmother, asking her to make Ilona stay in the Czech Republic. Ilona sits down on a rocking horse and rocks back and forth, which prompts Jan to whisper, “You’re so alluring.”

The two make love in a bed in the castle.

In the next scene, Jan shoots a deer and Ilona yells at him for killing a defenseless animal. “Don’t you have a heart?” she asks him, then storms away. “I hate you, Jan!”

The film cuts to Jan at his house (something of a mansion/castle itself) where he plays the clarinet mournfully. He is visited by his girlfriend, who starts stripping in front of him. Shockingly, Ilona hears the two of them making love from outside (the girlfriend moans, “God! What ecstasy!”, proving they are having sex). Ilona cries and runs away, though she is comforted for a moment by Jan’s grandfather.

The next day, while Jan’s grandfather holds an exhibition of his paintings on the lawn, Jan finds Ilona sitting on a bench by a stream. “I’d like to apologize for the incident yesterday,” he says. “It’s not a big deal. I was brought up that way. Can you not understand that?”

“There’s no forgiveness for killers and betrayers.”

Eventually, Jan’s grandfather unveils his latest painting, which includes the face of a woman who resembles Ilona—and also the Countess Teresa, who disappeared decades earlier.

One of the villagers reads the title of the painting: “The Legend of Savage Lagoon.”

Another villager says, “Our fable of the frog-man.”

Jan then plays a piece called “Goodbye, My Dream” that he wrote on the clarinet for Ilona. This takes a long time, and it even prompts Jan’s grandfather to have a flashback about dancing with Teresa.

After the clarinet solo, Ilona takes a horse and rides down to the lagoon due to her confused feelings. Soon, lightning strikes and the white-haired man from the forest grabs Ilona, carrying her away. He abducts her to his cave.

Meanwhile, Jan’s grandfather tells Jan that it was he who fell in love with Countess Teresa, and that Jan’s grandmother is actually Teresa. Jan gets a horse to go after Ilona, stopping as he mounts the horse to ask, “Grandpa, what is Ilona to me? Are we related?”

“Yes,” he replies. “She’s your third cousin.”

Jan grins ambiguously, gets on the horse, and rides off to find his third cousin.

When he reaches the savage lagoon, he sees Ilona’s discarded shawl. Thinking something has happened, he takes off his shoes and dives into the lagoon. 

Back in the cave, the old man has a flashback that helpfully explains the backstory. The old man was Teresa’s brother, Count Rudlov, and he was angry that Teresa was pregnant with Jan’s grandfather’s baby, exiling her from the family. After returning from the flashback, Ilona reveals who her grandmother was, and the old man realizes he is her grandfather (something only the most perceptive filmgoers would have realized much earlier in the film).

Jan emerges from the savage lagoon into the old man’s cave. When he hears the old man speaking, he pulls out a knife and attacks the man due to the Count’s reputation as a murderer. The men fight, and Jan falls back into the savage lagoon, which Ilona interprets as fatal. 

Then the moonlight hits the savage lagoon and the water starts to bubble. Also, either a monster appears or someone turns into a monster, though this is only seen from a distance in silhouette.

A few minutes later, Jan’s family finds the old man’s cave and sees the old man dying on the floor, perhaps as a result of being attacked by the monster, or perhaps due to Jan's attack. From the lagoon, we hear something growling, but we never see the monster.

Having explained almost nothing, the film cuts back to New York for a final sum-up of the plot. Ilona sits with a friend in Central Park. “I didn’t realize how much I loved him, until he died.”

“Who killed the man?” her friend asks.

“The man was my grandfather,” Ilona explains. “The great Count of Rudlov, as they used to call him.” She also reveals she has gotten the starring role in Swan Lake.

The film ends with a continuation of the first song again, whose lyrics must be preserved:

Bohemian moon
You move so free
So high
So far
But still in reach for me
And you, you, you shine so bright
An eclipse of night
But I am still inside
You and I, we both lived through the crimson and the gray
Separated and re-rejoined
And through this fog we’ll stay
You and I, we both lived through the crimson and the gray
Separated and re-rejoined
And through this fog we’ll stay

Savage Lagoon is an authentic, honest, and earnest film from director MarieAnna Dvorak that combines almost everything a cinephile might be looking for: riding horses through a forest, occasional nudity, the hint of a lake monster, romance between third cousins, criticisms of communist revolutions, geographical underpants, and lots of lightning. What more can I say? Nothing but the following: May we all find our savage lagoon someday, somewhere...