#154 (tie) – Black Narcissus (1947), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Black Narcissus

Nun too difficult. You are almost contractual obliged to use a bell-ringing shot atop any article about Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. And there is little wonder why, as this movie about a group of nuns atop a mountain in India is a visual feast of extraordinary sumptuousness.

After four movies set firmly within wartime Britain, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger finally put World War II behind and look to the outskirts of Britain’s colonial empire for their fifth entry on the Sight & Sound list, Black Narcissus (1947). Though set in the mountains of northern India, the film sticks with a predominantly white, English cast (unfortunately even for a number of Indian roles), presenting the trials and tribulations of a group of nuns attempting to set up a school and clinic in a mountaintop palace. Few in number and living in isolation, the nuns (led by Powell’s beloved Deborah Kerr) struggle with their living situation, the local people, and among themselves as they try to cope atop the mountain. The film uses the nuns to delve into questions of faith, duty, colonial attitudes, lust, love, and madness. But the treatment of these themes is generally superficial, with the movie preferring to work more as an exercise in tone and image. And in that regard Black Narcissus is a thrilling work of art channeling the compositions of Vermeer, a liberal dash of Orientalism, and a sinister Technicolor palette to create an unreal world where enlightenment and derangement sit side by side. (100 min.)

J. – This is a tough movie to know what to make of. As mentioned above, it posits a lot of interesting ideas or subjects for possible exploration, but it then tends to just put them aside without a second thought. In some regard there is the possibility of seeing a throughline, an actual narrative arc, in the mental deterioration of Sister Ruth. But even that tends to get short shrift, simmering on the back burner as the film focuses on Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh — a character with almost no narrative arc whatsoever. I think it fair to say that Black Narcissus tends to be more about moments, it sort of ebbs and flows between emotional crescendos without really bothering with the narrative tissue connecting those moments. And when thought of in that way there are quite a number of strong scenes, particularly those that are driven by the visuals — which are frequently astounding. But I’m not sure it adds up to a strong movie, in part because these emotional crescendos are spread among a largish ensemble, which means that every character gets a moment but not necessarily a story. Poor Sister Honey, for example, sits in the background nearly silent until she freaks out over a dying baby, but that traumatic experience never really pays dividends for the character, the film simply moves on. It’s a pity, because when the movie really hones its focus in the last half hour to the core trio of Sister Clodagh, Sister Ruth, and Mr. Dean it is pretty goddamn amazing.

S. – Black Narcissus does feel like a missed opportunity, so many interesting characters isolated on a bleak and beautiful mountaintop yet lacking the cohesion of a robust narrative to bind them all together. It is so frustrating because the seeds of some really good ideas are present but they are not explored to a satisfactory degree. I feel like the fault of this underachievement has to lie with the directors as the performances are strong. Kerr’s Sister Clodagh has the steely determination of a person that has slammed the door on her past. Mr. Dean (despite his laughable wardrobe) exudes the enigmatic allure of a foreigner who is an expert in negotiating the inconveniences of maintaining one’s Englishness in thoroughly unlikely surroundings. The nuns all chime in (when they are briefly allowed to) with solid depictions of their various insecurities bubbling to the surface in the challenging environment of the St. Faith convent. Even the wind presents itself as a believable catalyst for exposing the weaknesses of each of the outsiders. Unfortunately these story elements never realise their full potential. The genuine investment in the film was saved for the visuals, which are indeed fantastic. The blending of dramatic painted scenery into the field of action is remarkable. The oppressive habits that swamp the nuns yet ripple like silk as they sweep through the stone hallways of the mountaintop palace. The ostentatious fabrics and jewels that adorn the young general. These details are where Powell and Pressburger directed their energy. I agree with you J., in that last 30 minutes the story comes to life and is a match for the visual power, super-charging everything. The effect was to leave me nonplussed, why did they only bring their A-game right at the end?

Black Narcissus 3

Deborah Kerr (left) does a fine job playing Sister Clodagh, the sister superior of the convent, but the role is in many ways underwritten and the character a bit too stiff for so charismatic an actress. The more juicy role goes to Kathleen Byron as the increasingly disturbed Sister Ruth. Byron is an engaging performer throughout the film, giving Sister Ruth a crazed demeanor that usually manages to remain within the bounds of plausibility while still being deeply unsettling.

J. – I don’t think it’s necessarily that they only brought their best to the finale. Indeed, the lurid colors and crazed plotting of the film’s final scenes probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful without the more modest melodrama that came before. One need only think of the chapel, all white, grey and dull gold in the early scenes — very much drawing from the palette of Vermeer — and filled with white-grey nuns; but when the film amps up at the end, the room is bathed in the oranges and pinks of a mountain sunrise. It is these contrasts that lend the ending much of its power.

But that doesn’t excuse the filmmakers from the need to create something compelling with the less lurid material, and I think Black Narcissus largely fails in that regard. Colonel Blimp proves beyond doubt that Powell & Pressburger are capable of creating compelling episodic narratives, but you wouldn’t know it from this film, which never allows for the depth that the filmmakers granted Clive Candy and Theo. But in recent days I’ve been wondering if costumes aren’t to blame. Hear me out on this. We both agree that David Farrar gives a strong performance as Mr. Dean, but he is undermined wholly by his short shorts and ridiculous bare-chested outfits. The nuns are almost hidden in their habits, which cuts down on the actresses’ ability to express themselves. And, worst of all, a number of the actors are white English people made up as Indians, which is so thoroughly distracting that it takes me right out of things. (It’s also a bit strange given the apparent support for Indians shown in A Matter of Life and Death.) And that leaves me with Sabu, the one actor in dress befitting his role and unencumbered with regard to performing — and damn if he isn’t great as the general’s son. Sure, his subplot gets short shrift (as most do in this movie), but it doesn’t really matter whenever he is on screen. And while that is certainly a measure of his ability and charisma, I’d say that his dress has something to do with it — think of how much more interesting Sister Ruth is simply by the act of putting on a red dress. Before she goes completely bonkers there is little distinguishing Kathleen Byron’s performance in and out of the nun’s habit, but she gets so much more out of her acting by being liberated from the robes. Yes, the contrast has something to do with that, but I think a good deal of it lies in the freedom of being dressed like an everyday woman.

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As is all too common in films of the day, many non-white roles are played by white actors, which is a damn shame. This matter becomes particularly noticeable when these white actors share the screen with the marvelous Indian actor Sabu, who is very funny and engaging in his role as the local general’s son. Even so, a young, pre-Spartacus Jean Simmons is generally fun to watch in her wordless performance as a headstrong Indian girl.

S. – The contrast certainly adds to the impact of the finale, although I’m not sure if the costumes can be held entirely responsible for the shallow interactions that dominate the majority of the film. Near the end when Ruth is on the verge of bursting into full-crazy she overhears a conversation between Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh, where he comments to the sister that she has changed since she arrived. That rang completely false with me. Up until that point I was wondering if the lesson of the tale was going to be the inability of the nuns to adapt to their new surroundings doomed them to failure. If the filmmakers were trying to show us personal growth of any of the characters I missed it completely. Before the nuns were sent off on their mountaintop mission we were given an insight into all of their personalities via commentary provided by the Sister Superior. From that point on our pioneering nuns stayed true to type. Some snippets of back story were revealed for Sister Clodagh as she silently reminisced, yet these insights were not shared with her companions and did not appear to alter her interactions with them. Perhaps the voluminous habits kept the sisters from revealing too much of their inner lives to each other, but some more dialogue could have gone a long way toward rectifying that.

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Black Narcissus makes use of amazing lighting contrasts to distinguish its more domestic, melodramatic first half from its suspenseful, madness-tinged second half. Both of these images are of the convent chapel, but in the earlier scene the palette and lighting is straight out of the cool, formally composed works of Vermeer, whereas the latter shot is all lurid tones and shadows, with an off-kilter camera angle to heighten the tension and menace. (Click to embiggen.)

J. – I agree with that, and I don’t mean to make it sound like I place all the flaws on the costuming. I just found it interesting that the appearance of the characters had such a strong (and often strongly negative) effect on my perception of the performances. But you are right that much of the fault lies in the narrative, particularly the lack of narrative arcs for many characters. I wouldn’t normally take issue with this, as I strongly disagree that characters must “grow” (whatever that means) across a story, but as you pointed out, the movie insists that its characters have changed without actually demonstrating that in any way — that’s a failing.

However, one character absolutely does go through a transformation — quite literally — and it sets the stage for that last half hour of the movie, which is freakin’ brilliant. I absolutely love Kathleen Byron’s batshit insane Sister Ruth in the closing portion of the film. The movie goes from strength to strength at the moment that Ruth gets her red dress in the mail. I particularly liked the interaction between the grasping, infatuated Ruth and Mr.Dean in the latter’s home. The power of that segment comes not from the seething Ruth acting like a madwomen, but the clear joy the woman has being in Mr. Dean’s presence, even seeming content to be thrown out of the house so long as it requires that he touch her to do so. But the peak of the film is definitely upon Ruth’s return to the convent. In our discussion just after watching the film we both agreed that it was 100% obvious what was going to transpire between Ruth and Clodagh, but I found that the lack of surprise didn’t diminish anything for me. Surely this was in no small part due to the wild lighting and suspenseful camerawork, which created a strange atmosphere of both beauty and dread. And it is hard not to be haunted by the appearance of Ruth in these final scenes — particularly her sleep-deprived stare. She must have scared the pants off of viewers at the time. Truly marvelous stuff that elevated the entire viewing experience to a degree unimaginable after sitting through the first half of the movie.

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The confrontation between Sister Clodagh and the newly dolled up Sister Ruth is a wonderful study in simmering aggression, with Ruth using the act of putting on lipstick as a frontal assault on her former sister superior. In earlier portions of the film, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous but the story and performances often don’t live up to the cinematography. But as the plot, performances, and staging get increasingly tense and manic, they increasingly complement each other, creating a remarkable viewing experience over the final 30 minutes of the movie.

S. – The payoff here was huge! Ruth’s meltdown was entirely engrossing. Suddenly an urgency is injected into the film that sets the atmosphere buzzing. That shot you refer to of the haunted Ruth appearing in a darkened doorway is unforgettable. The staging and her appearance has a very modern edge that makes her seem completely alien to her rustic surroundings, it is truly unsettling and totally unexpected from a 1940s movie. It does become very clear that things are not going to end well, yet the drama is delivered with such energy and vibrancy that I was completely caught up in it. In the end the nuns of St. Faith did not have what it takes to survive in their remote Himalayan palace, just as Mr. Dean predicted. Their retreat is a humble one, with the outsiders leaving far more affected than the locals they were aspiring to change.

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She’s coming for you!

Related yammers:
#117 – The Red Shoes (1948), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
#183 – Day of Wrath (1943), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
#9 – The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
#127 – The Last Laugh (1924), dir. F.W. Murnau
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