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Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus (1947 UK 100 mins)

Prod Co: The Archers/Independent Producers Prod, Dir: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger Scr: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, from the novel by Rumer Godden Phot: Jack Cardiff Prod Des: Alfred Junge Ed: Reginald Mills Cost: Hein Heckroth Mus: Brian Easdale

Cast: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Flora Robson, Esmond Knight, Jean Simmons

I first saw Black Narcissus on a borrowed VHS tape. I had just seen A Matter of Life and Death (1946) at the Melbourne Cinémathèque, and was blown away by its odd tone, use of freeze-frames and mix of colour and black-and-white cinematography. Who were these Archers? How many other films had they made, and what were they like? I was starving for more. Invited to select more Powell and Pressburger films from a friend’s video library, I chose Black Narcissus because it was shot in Technicolor and had an outrageous reputation as “[a]n erotic masterpiece about nuns!” (1) Since that first viewing, Black Narcissus has remained one of my favourite films, and Michael Powell one of my favourite directors.

The film is hauntingly beautiful, and for good reason. Firstly, the film set a new technical benchmark for Technicolor cinematography, building on Powell (and Pressburger’s) previous work in the form The Thief of Bagdad (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Matter of Life and Death. In Black Narcissus, colour was used to amp up the exotic nature and “otherness” of the Indian landscape, architecture and costume. Yet colour was also used in a new way, becoming “the emotion of the picture” (2). Used as a thematic device, colour became a way of externalising the nuns’ secret thoughts, their repressed emotions and desires. Secondly, the sense of place achieved through a combination of phenomenal art direction, highly expressive score and sound design is so enchanting and palpable, that the old palace and the mountains almost become characters themselves. So convincing were the studio sets, plaster mountains and matte paintings, that Powell received many letters from people who had traveled or lived in India claiming to know the exact locations of certain scenes. Unsurprisingly, the skills of both Jack Cardiff (Director of Photography) and Alfred Junge (Art Director) were acknowledged with Academy Awards.

Black Narcissus is also memorable for its incredible characters. What about Deborah Kerr’s utter radiance and grace – even in a full-length off-white nun’s garb? Or the incongruity of an eccentrically dressed, strikingly handsome David Farrar – the film’s ironic figure of British authority – trotting around on a miniature pony with his knees almost up around his ears? And who can forget Kathleen Byron as the crazed Sister Ruth turned deadly Medusa? So memorable was Byron’s performance, that even in her twilight years, people stopped her to say: “You’re that mad nun aren’t you?” (3) The film also cemented Kerr’s career in Hollywood where she had been previously languishing under contract to MGM. Reminiscing towards the end of his life about Kerr, who was once the love of his life, Powell said: “Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for ever since I had discovered that I had been born to be a teller of tales and a creator of dreams” (4).

I like the fact that Powell saw himself as “a teller of tales and a creator of dreams”. He was clearly proud of Black Narcissus, proclaiming: “I thought it was a wonderful exercise […] to produce a real perfect colour work of art” (5). The film’s success at the box office heralded Powell’s ascent as a director-producer to the pinnacle of his career. Given carte blanche for some time thereafter to make films largely unhindered by the whims of financiers, Powell and Pressburger dreamt up even more daring feats such as the sumptuous and technically dazzling ballet and opera films, The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).

Black Narcissus, like much of the rest of Powell’s oeuvre, shines like a beacon within the context of world cinema, especially 1940s and early 1950s British cinema. In this era, British filmmaking favoured either the realism of documentaries and kitchen-sink dramas or the fluffy, escapist comedies and melodramas produced by Gainsborough Studios (with Ealing falling somewhere in between the two). As John Ellis explains, Powell and scriptwriter partner Pressburger,

presented intellectually challenging material in popular cinematic forms. They did not pretend to be genre pieces made for the popular audience. This was not the result of any particular snobbery; rather it was a cinephile’s blindness to external cultural values being imposed upon the cinema of popular entertainment. (6)

What this summary alludes to is the fact that some historical criticism of Powell and Pressburger’s work denigrates their artistry as the pretension of a highbrow, European-trained cinephilia (7). As a result, “there is a generally confused and schizophrenic response to Powell and Pressburger’s films that emerges form a critical standpoint that favours certain types and styles of film production” (8). As Adrian Danks concludes, this critical view of Powell and Pressburger’s cinema “focuses upon its hybridised and synthetic nature”, and is “uncertain of its incessant combination of somewhat disparate genres, tones and visual styles” (9).

Like Danks, I think that this aspect of Powell and Pressburger’s work is to be celebrated. It signals their irreverence towards not just the cinema industry of the day, but towards a class-ridden, eccentric, rigid and emotionally repressed British society (10). As Ellis elaborates, Powell’s partnership with Pressburger produced work that

certainly shared a full-blooded, rather middlebrow, romantic taste, which marks them out from the mainstream of British opinion. It is a cliché based on fact that the British are uncomfortable with intense emotionality, especially in public. […] their films had a particularly European feel to them. Three factors give rise to this. The films have a very un-British attitude to artifice. They use mise en scène rather than dialogue to convey complex emotions. They are at home with the questions of sexuality with which British cinema was habitually uncomfortable. (11)

Released in the year India gained independence from Britain, Black Narcissus was adapted from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same name. The film marks Powell and Pressburger’s first significant foray into adaptation. It tells the tale of a group of British nuns who are sent to the outer reaches of India to establish a mission. But almost immediately, the beauty of the landscape and the simplistic desires of the indigenous people thwart their well-meaning, but nonetheless colonising intentions. The nun’s increasing feelings of frustration are further exacerbated by the sexual relationship between the narcissistic Young General (Sabu) and the pauper minx Kanchi (an obviously “blacked-up” Jean Simmons), and their growing dependence on the womanising drunk Englishman Mr Dean. In particular, “the double portrait of Clodagh and Ruth”, the characters played by Kerr and Byron respectively, “exposes the cruelty of the nun’s position, in which she finds herself in an environment that never ceases to remind her that she is – or was – a woman, while being obliged constantly to renew her forgetting of that fact” (12).

Closer examination of the film and Godden’s novel has given me further insights into Powell’s gifted abilities as a director. Almost all of the drama in the novel occurs in the characters’ minds, yet somehow Powell transposes all of it into action, music and most significantly, atmosphere. It is melodrama of the highest order, “the coming together of a variety of super-charged modes of expression to tell tales about hysterically fraught and often gothic situations” (13). This sense of atmosphere and externalised emotion is best illustrated in the penultimate sequence where crazed Sister Ruth hunts down and tries to kill Sister Clodagh in a blaze of reds, pinks, oranges and greens. As Powell explains:

In Black Narcissus, I started out almost as a documentary director and ended up as a producer of opera, even though the excerpt from the opera was only about twelve minutes long. Never mind! It was opera in the sense that music, emotion, image and voices all blended together into a new and splendid whole. […] It was planned step by step, bar by bar by Brian [Easdale] and myself. I wanted to get the maximum of suspense out of the cat-and-mouse play between the two women and we succeeded. (14)

But Powell and his collaborators were surprisingly faithful to Godden’s source material: from the sparring dialogue between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean; the Irish flashback sequences; the astute yet innocent wit of the charming, sumptuously costumed Young General; to the use of colour and light. For instance, consider the quality of light created in the establishing shots of the Order’s headquarters in Calcutta. Godden describes Sister Clodagh at Mopu as feeling “ringed with air in which there was no colour, only a sense of colour […] and a blue whiteness that was the air itself” (15). Like Vermeer’s paintings, Cardiff’s cinematography capture Sister Clodagh and the other nuns busying themselves with God’s work with slashes of painterly light so clear and clean, that there is a bluish, surgically cold feel to it. This reference to Vermeer helps articulate an “interior space […] the privacy of the private” (16); of women trying not just to forget the female bodies under their habits, but their “feminine” emotions and passions as well. The sudden eruption of repressed emotion is wonderfully illustrated in the sequence where Sister Ruth is violently rejected by Mr Dean. Sister Ruth’s conniption and passing into unconsciousness is represented as a sudden bursting forth of red washing down the frame, interspersed with flash frames before a sharp cut back to “reality”. This is an obvious reference to the novel, where Sister Ruth is described as always having “wild tempers, but lately there was something in them that frightened her herself. […] It felt like something dark and wet, flooding her brain, like blood.” (17)

Like other Powell (and Pressburger) films, Black Narcissus utilises an odd variety of visual styles and modes of address to illustrate Sister Clodagh’s “sense of dismay that” comes “from the house and not from Mr Dean, a sense that she was an interloper in it and the Convent life no more than a cobweb that would be brushed away” (18). The film’s opening sequences best illustrate this. On the surface, they seem to merely establish the film’s location and characters. But as Martin Scorsese observes, the opening credit sequence is also Disneyesque (19). Using almost “photo-realist” paintings of Fantasia-inspired mountains, heralded in by an exotic Himalayan trumpet fanfare, the film immediately establishes itself as tale of pure fantasy and imagination. I would also argue that this sequence is like the opening of an epic Western, whose troubled protagonists view horizons as something beautifully seductive, but also terrifying, potentially dangerous and “unknowable”. In the realms of the Western genre, horizons and the land are omnipotent, physical things that challenge their characters to conquer and civilise them via navigation, cultivation and colonisation.

The film then lands with a thud in an austere, almost Bressonian convent in Calcutta. This is where we meet Sister Clodagh who is appointed as the youngest Sister Superior to establish the mission at Mopu. From then on we see various versions of Mopu, rendered in different artistic and filmic styles.

In so doing, the landscape and the palace is rendered as “a strange and exotic alien space, […] a plastic rendering of the protagonist’s interiority” (20). We are pointedly introduced to Mopu as a stylised colonial painting that has been reprinted in a book. Then the book is placed down upon stark black-and-white photographs showing the “reality” of Mopu “today”. Sister Clodagh is then shown to focus upon the words written in Mr Dean’s letter of introduction. Suddenly we hear him speaking “a rather artificial BBC British” (21), which narrates a further series of odd views of Mopu, its inhabitants and the palace. Initially, a more Oriental and exotic looking palace appears to us, perched on the precipice of a mountain ledge, as if seen from an eagle’s point-of-view (in reality a fantastic looking, spinning three-dimensional model). Then the film morphs into the style of an anthropological documentary, depicting a range of Asiatic peoples in colourful costumes, smiling as they work. We are then told the history of the palace as “a house of women”. We voyeuristically track through the grounds, and through a window, peering into the now abandoned palace. There, we are introduced to Angu Aya (May Hallet), who hams it up as a scruffy servant, prancing through a procession of rooms as she seems to play with the concubines’ ghosts. Powell then cuts to an extended sequence back at the Order of St Faith headquarters, where the other nuns are introduced to us, and Sister Clodagh’s own sense of herself is brought into question by the Reverend Mother. The end of this first act is announced by a final view of Mopu. It is of Sister Ruth abruptly flinging open the palace doors to admire the wondrous vista of the mountains and the nun’s dominion in the valley below. Thus, as Andrew Moor claims:

the Order of St Faith is an agent of British imperialism and to Clodagh part of their sense of “order” depends upon maintaining boundaries and observing polarised distinctions. […] that attention to work will be a necessary defence mechanism, a displacement or a way of repressing the ‘otherness’ or the pleasure which threatens to encroach on them. (22)

This reading is supported by other sequences in the film, where characters are shown as voyeurs, drinking in views of the landscape and slyly stealing glimpses of exchanges between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean, Kanchi and the Young General, as seen through the framing structures of the palace.

Such repeated re-visionings of place successfully and delicately illustrates how the nuns’ faithfulness to God, and ultimately the British Empire, is slowly eroded. In her novel, Godden can encapsulate these themes explicitly; for Powell this was much harder to do but achieved with great success. For instance, consider the following passage from the novel, which in turn evokes such vivid memories of Powell’s end product:

The house would not conform; look at the way they tried to say St Faith’s and always said Mopu. The flimsy walls did not shut out the world but made a sounding box for it; through every crack the smell of the world crept in, the smell of rain and sun and earth and the deodar trees and a wind strangely scented with tea. Here the bell did not command, it sounded doubtful against the gulf; the wind took the notes away and yet it brought the sound of the bells at Goontu very strongly; pagan temple bells. And everywhere in front of them was that far horizon and the eagles in the gulf below the snows. “I think you can see too far”, said Sister Philippa. “I look across there, and then I can’t see the potato I’m planting and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I plant it or not.” (23)

Thus, as I have hopefully demonstrated, the success of Black Narcissus’ adaptation for the screen lies in Powell’s ability to externalise emotion. Through a creative re-imaging of place, Mopu is used as a set-piece onto which the darkest, repressed parts of the characters’ humanity is played out. By pitting “realism” against artifice, interpretation against reinterpretation, Powell and Pressburger’s exciting cinema constantly uses an arsenal of style and technique to render their characters as literally being out of place. As Christie and Moor argue: “The key dynamic in Powell’s work might not, therefore, be voyeurism – despite the conspicuous ‘eye imagery’ from The Thief of Bagdad to Peeping Tom – but exhibitionism, a parading of cinematic technique” (24).

I believe that Powell’s unashamed “parading of cinematic technique” is something to celebrate in world cinema. For in doing so, he captures crystallised, playful and loving visions of Britain and the British at the time of the Empire’s imminent collapse. Black Narcissus remains just one example of this everlasting brilliance.

Endnotes

  1. Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic, Simon & Schuster, London, p. 57.
  2. Martin Scorsese in the documentary Painting With Light directed by Craig McCall, as featured in Network’s 2005 DVD of Black Narcissus.
  3. As told by Kathleen Byron in Painting With Light.
  4. Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, William Heinemann, London, 1986, p. 413.
  5. Powell in Painting With Light.
  6. John Ellis, “At the Edge of Our World”, The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker, ed. Ian Christie and Andrew Moor, BFI, London, 2005, p. 12.
  7. Such views also unfairly overlook the important contribution Powell’s collaborators made. These people include: scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger; art directors Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth; cinematographer Jack Cardiff; and composer Brian Easdale.
  8. Adrian Danks, “The Director as Peeping Tom: A Matter of Life, Death and Cinema”, Senses of Cinema no. 20, May-June 2002.
  9. Danks.
  10. Powell’s work often bristled with the critics and the Establishment of the day. Winston Churchill famously tried to ban The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp upon its release in 1943, and the sexually explicit and voyeuristic content of Peeping Tom (1960) practically cost Powell his filmmaking career (at least in Britain).
  11. Ellis, p. 12
  12. Natacha Thiéry, “That Obscure Object of Desire: Powell’s Women, 1945 – 50”, The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker, p. 229.
  13. Andrew Moor, Powell & Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces, I. B. Tauris, London, 2005, p. 176.
  14. Powell, p. 583.
  15. Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus, Pan Books, London, 1994, p. 87.
  16. Jean-Louis Leutrat, “The Invisible and the ‘Intruder Figure’: Perfume in Black Narcissus”, The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker, p. 138.
  17. Godden, p. 46.
  18. Godden, p. 105.
  19. Scorsese in Painting With Light.
  20. Moor, p. 181.
  21. Powell, p. 579.
  22. Moor, p. 183.
  23. Godden, p. 57.
  24. Ian Christie and Andrew Moor, “Introduction”, The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker, p. 5.