Described by Martin Scorsese as, “a cross between Disney and a horror film”, the curious, tempestuous and affecting Black Narcissus is one of cinema’s greatest deceptions. Near fantastical, it is a fine example of the medium’s ability to conjure foreign lands on studio soil, to fabricate exotic locations; mountain ranges with the flick of a brush, tropical downpours with the spurt of a hose.
Although set in the Himalayas, astonishingly it was filmed almost entirely at Pinewood Studios, England, with only one day of exterior shots, captured at the sub-tropical gardens in Horsham, West Sussex. Its awesome facade marks it out as a marvel of filmic ingenuity, and great British craft(iness). In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s admirable output, it sits chronologically between A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes, and thus forms part of a magnificent, aesthetically adventurous, Technicolor trio; beacons of British cinema at its very finest.
Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus sees a small group of nuns, led by the youthful and inexperienced Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), starting up a convent in a remote palace, located high in the Himalayan mountains. The palace’s former incarnation was as a “House of Women”, so called because the previous incumbent used it to house his harem. Its sinful past is captured forever on its walls, as the sisters of St. Faith find themselves inappropriately surrounded by wild frescoes of debauchery.
From hereon-in, things get increasingly strange and testing for the plucky band of sisters: the local wise man (actually an eccentric member of the gentry) is a permanent fixture, never seeming to sleep or eat; a British beefcake enters proceedings on one of the locals’ absurdly tiny ponies, bringing with him a world of masculine distraction; the wild unrelenting wind permanently unsettles; the church bell is strung terrifyingly on a cliff edge; a beautiful and rebellious local girl, Kanchi (played wonderfully but bizarrely by the very un-Eastern Jean Simmons), seduces The Young General (Sabu), whom the sisters have contentiously consented to educate. One of their number, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), enters this heady scenario already on the edge and ultimately high anxiety engulfs the entire collective.
Their sensuous surroundings have differing effects of the nuns. Whereas Ruth misplaces her marbles, Sister Clodagh finds that the environment triggers a flood of memories of her life prior to her spiritual calling; as a flame-haired, outdoorsy heroine, full of spirit and romantic optimism. This was before her passion (and symbolically her colour) was extinguished; unforgettably represented in a flashback of Clodagh decked out in exuberant emeralds, running excitedly to the door to greet her suitor, only to find herself hurtling into nothingness. The convent’s residents are sporadically visited by the obscenely rugged English land agent Mr Dean (David Farrar), whose studied indifference, disrespectful teasing and unselfconscious displays of flesh contrive to send the fragile, susceptible Sister Ruth wild.
Part of Black Narcissus’ pleasure and power comes from the marvelous incongruity of these brides of Christ residing within the highly sexualised, glaringly foreign setting; its ghosts represented not just by the faded murals but by the omnipresent wind. An atmosphere is cultivated which is tangibly corrupting, oppressive and deeply unsettling. The film was something of a scandal on its release, with the Catholic church particularly vocal in their condemnation. It’s not hard to see why. Although its edge has been blunted by the passing of time, it remains extraordinarily powerful and is, in part at least, a transgressive examination of female sexuality in an age where merely acknowledging the existence of such a thing would’ve been viewed as highly taboo. Its final sequences depict femininity as a weapon to be wielded; a hysterical force, used to taunt women and to tempt men.
The landscapes are masterfully realised and incorporated, with a sense of depth and scope brilliantly achieved. The church bell situated on a precipice feels appropriately perilous; and indicates that the nuns, under sensual assault from all quarters, find their very sanity and, in some cases, chastity teetering precariously. There is a distinct feeling of the uncanny in its painted landscapes and stylised lighting. In Kent Jones’ essay ‘Empire of the Senses’, which accompanies the disc, he writes, ” Black Narcissus is an enchantment, an immersion in the sheer pleasure of artifice and the play of creation.”
Although it needs to astound — and astound it does — Black Narcissus’ gob-smacking fabrications are discernable under scrutiny. This real yet unreal landscape perfectly suits the subject matter and is a crucial ingredient in the film’s unique madness. Its success is a triumph of this paradox.
It’s for these reasons that Black Narcissus is such a remarkable achievement of the film’s art department. The Archers (as Powell and Pressburger were collectively known) prided themselves on assembling crack teams of collaborators, and provided each with considerable artistic freedom; with reliably innovative results. The film’s production designer, Alfred Junge, and cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, would apparently squabble incessantly on set, but the results of this bickering speak for themselves.
The painted landscapes by Walter Percy ‘Poppa’ Day and co are a thing of wonder. Aesthetically it takes particular inspiration from the work of Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. Jack Cardiff was a fine art enthusiast and it was this nous, rather than his technical expertise that led to him being chosen by Technicolor as the first British technician to be trained in the technology. It is apposite that a film which relies so heavily on painted landscapes should take so much inspiration from the art world.
Black Narcissus’ trio of central performers — Kerr, Byron and Farrar — are superb. The stoically aloof but formerly passionate Clodagh, the blunt but ultimately upstanding Mr. Dean, and the deranged, lusty Ruth are engaged in a fraught romantic triangle which provides the dramatic propulsion and the film’s famously barking climax.
The extras include the aforementioned essay by Kent Jones, which urges that we look beyond the sex and melodrama and acknowledge the film’s complex treatment of its subject matter. He argues that, “With great force, Black Narcissus addresses an enduring misconception: the longing, indeed fervent belief that reality can be reconfigured to conform to an ideal image. Sister Clodagh and her charges at St. Faith are confident that they can keep the past (their pasts and the past of their new dwelling, a former brothel) from intruding on the present, but they cannot.” It’s a refreshingly unconventional and persuasive reading of the film.
The commentary features the recollections of Michael Powell, recorded only two yeas before his death in 1990, interspersed with comments from Powell and Pressburger aficionado (and legend in his own right) Martin Scorsese. Powell comes out with some gems, referring to his team affectionately and appropriately as “wizards” and describing the total immersion of the production experience. Despite his slurred speech and declining health, something of his rebellious personality comes through. He tells an anecdote about recently bumping into Jean Simmons and surprising her with a “Boo!”
Powell also talks about the benefits of sharing the key roles of writer, producer and director with co-creator Emeric Pressburger, “If ever anybody said to us we suggest you do this, we’d just say f-off.” He describes David Farrar’s nonchalant attitude toward film stardom thusly, “He didn’t go onto a great movie career because he didn’t care to.” Scorsese is a welcome commentary companion and provides a characteristically illuminating and incomparably enthusiastic contribution.
Filmmaker and friend of Michael Powell, Bertrand Tavernier, provides both an introduction and a video interview entitled, “The Audacious Adventurer”. He describes Powell revealingly as “a European before even such a concept was even invented.” The feature “Painting with Light” is a short documentary about, and featuring, the quite lovely Jack Cardiff, with footage taken from the film Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (which is incidentally, like the man himself, absolutely charming). A trailer and 25-minute profile round-off the package.
Black Narcissus is iconically and almost ethereally beautiful. A full-blooded, complex melodrama of the highest order it is truly, madly, hysterically wonderful.