FILM REVIEW: Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus (UK, 1947)
Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Starring Deborah Kerr, Roger Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Sabu

The two worst devices in film criticism are nostalgia and the arrogance of youth. On the one hand it is foolish to assume that all films from the past have a natural superiority over those made today, just as it is foolish to say that a hand-written letter is entirely superior to e-mail. On the other hand, in an age where almost anything can be said or done legally on screen, it is stupid to assume that a film like Black Narcissus doesn't still hold up.At first glance, Black Narcissus would seem like a lot of other melodramas released around the Second World War: emotionally shallow, overly simple, badly constructed and ultimately dull. But after its off-putting theatrical opening, the film quickly begins to defy our expectations and serves up a lot more in the way of both style and substance. What starts off shakily ends up as a brilliantly gripping, intense psychological thriller with great performance and stunning expressionist visuals.To give credit to the cynics, the opening ten minutes are a little uneven. Their style is much more quirky and offbeat than we would expect from Powell and Pressburger, even considering the level of quaintness in A Canterbury Tale. May Hallatt's role as the elderly caretaker is very off-balance in both her performance and its surroundings. The opening is also laden with exposition, and as the camera lingers on the luxurious décor of this former seraglio, we struggle to engage with our surroundings for more than a few moments.

Once the nuns arrive, however, the film takes off and you forgive all its subsequent quirks of fate. The film is a visual delight, with Jack Cardiff's Oscar-winning cinematography bringing real character to both the costumes and the architecture. Most Technicolor films are praised for how bright their primary colours are, but in Black Narcissus what sticks with you is the white on screen, from the shimmering robes of the nuns to the pale walls of the convent and the flickering candles in between. The production design is so effective that you soon forget that all of this was shoot at Pinewood Studios, and all the vistas of the Himalayas are either murals or matte paintings.Black Narcissus is an intriguing exploration of sexual repression, made intriguing by its relative subtlety and understatement. Some of this is down to the context in which the film was made; even though Powell considered it "his most erotic movie", there is no open consummation of love or lust, and if such scenes had been attempted they would never have got passed the censors. But most of it is down to Powell's brilliant camerawork and Pressburger's slow-burning script. The camera is fixed on the nuns' faces to reveal every little twitch or slight smile that reveal more than words ever could.The film explores sexual repression through a number of interesting opposites. The most obvious of these is the relationship between Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and Mr. Dean (Roger Farrar). The camera treats these two characters very differently: when Clodagh is in shot, the camera focuses on her face and she is never seen out of her habit, to show her purity and resilience. With Mr. Dean, on the other hand, we get to see a whole lot more: there are many wide shots of him stomping around in short shorts, and at least one close-up on his hairy chest. Farrar is the antithesis of everything Clodagh stand for - wild at heart, uncouth, unkempt, and massively attractive.Under these circumstances, the easy thing would be to focus solely on the rivalry between these two characters and end up with Sister Clodagh resigning from the order to be with him. But Pressburger is too clever to let that happen, and instead the story plays out like a duel of principles with the prize being right rather than being in love. Both Dean and Clodagh are established as intelligent, determined and resourceful characters whose conflict comes primarily from a conflict of opinion rather than a botched desire to suppress Freudian urges.

As the plot develops and Sister Ruth becomes a more prominent character, we begin to understand the intelligence behind this decision. For most of the film in which Sister Ruth plays no massive part, we are led to believe that Dean is an obstacle to the nuns' success, someone whose disregard for their religion and way of life threatens both the success of the convent and the purity of their order. But once we discover Ruth's fate, we realise that the source of evil or temptation was not so much Dean as the nuns' perception of him. In the eyes of the film, temptation is not something that comes from 'out there', beyond the safety of Christian walls. It is inside of all of us, and more often than not we drive ourselves to give into it.If we think of Black Narcissus as a version of Adam and Eve, that helps to illuminate its spiritual and psychological theses. At the beginning we believe that the convent is like Eden, a safe, perfect place surrounded by a strange land, and with Dean as the serpent who enters the Garden bringing temptation with him. But after we see what has happened to Ruth, the story departs from this in one of two ways. Either we are still seeing a Christian myth play out, but with more emphasis on perception and delusion than on physical evil. Or what we are seeing is something more humanist, where the evil is simply the torment of opposites coming together under one roof.

The key scene in Black Narcissus comes when Sister Clodagh stumbles into a room and finds Sister Ruth wearing a dress and red lipstick, looking immensely proud and increasingly wanton. Here we have opposing depictions of womanhood: one is intensely sexual to the point of madness, the other pure and virginal but also naïve. Both Clodagh and Ruth are driven by a kind of faith - Clodagh by her belief in God and her need to prove herself, and Ruth by her belief that Dean loves her and that no-one must stand in her way. When Dean spurns her, shouting "I don't love anyone!", it is as much a loss of faith as Clodagh's departure, if not moreso.Fantasy plays a prominent part in Black Narcissus. Throughout the story we see flashback to Clodagh's youth in Ireland, and slowly realise her motivation behind becoming a nun. She remembers the man she loved through objects; the emeralds worn by the general's son remind her of those given to her for her wedding day which never took place. These scenes were banned when the film was first released, presumably because of its insinuation that nuns were simply failed lovers, women who didn't measure up to the men of this world. And then we have the ending, which takes us straight to the heart of expressionist horror. The way in which the screen turns red as Sister Ruth faints, or the terrifying close-ups of her eyes, foreshadow the great work of Dario Argento in Suspiria.The film also has a strong but subtle political elements. The film was released around the time of India's independence from Britain, and its final scenes have been interpreted as Britain trying to make a dignified exit from a land it could neither control nor understand. The culture clash between different religions (in this case Christianity and Hinduism) is played out very subtly, and foreshadows the more frightening and hysterical clashes in The Devils and The Wicker Man. Crucially, the film doesn't fall into the imperialist trap of portraying the British as wholly rational and the 'natives' as overtly savage. As the nuns start to disintegrate and more intelligent Indian characters come forward, such accusations become redundant.Black Narcissus is a great effort from Powell and Pressburger which is almost up there with The Red Shoes. The performances are superb, with Deborah Kerr managing to seem composed and conflicted simultaneously and Kathleen Byron scaring us to death as Sister Ruth. The film remains visually astounding, the script is subtle even in its maddest moments, and there is enough tension and brains bubbling beneath the surface to keep anyone enthralled. A hugely compelling piece and a must-see for thriller fans.

Rating: 4.5/5

Verdict: Smart, sexy and scintillating


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