Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Far away from the self-congratulating nationalism of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and 49th Parallel, and equally far from the romantic gestures of I Know Where I’m Going! and A Matter of Life and Death, the masterpiece of the Archers — the collaborative label under which the great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked — stands apart from even their most ambitious prior (and subsequent) work, and moreover from most narrative cinema in general. Its depth and wisdom are monumental, but still have nothing on its pure, aching beauty. Black Narcissus is a haunting, dreamlike treasure upon one’s introduction to it — and it becomes ever more startling and affecting as you come to know its intricacies better, and as its subtle, bizarre, winding story lures you back in repeatedly. It is a cornucopia of secrets, locked in time and suspended, untouched in all but the most superficial ways by its increasing age. It feels, as few other films, like so much more than a mere motion picture.
The work is based on a very popular book by Rumer Godden, an English girl who was struck and strongly influenced by the frank (especially sexual) attitudes of the people she grew up around upon relocating to India. (Jean Renoir’s magnificent The River is taken fron another, much more autobiographical novel of hers.) The story concerns a group of nuns who set up a mission in the Himalayas and are confronted with numerous obstacles of both physical and psychological nature. The reputation that precedes the film (and Renoir’s, actually) is its universally agreed-upon status as one of the most aesthetically gorgeous of all color films; one’s impression in the abstract, from the descriptions of scholars and critics, might be of endless shots of nuns in full dress crossing windswept mountains holding up a cross with breathtaking landscapes all around. Unlike their fellow countryman David Lean, though, Powell and Pressburger balk at the notion of cutting narrative corners in favor of providing their audience with an exotic slide show; in their hands as well as Godden’s, this is a story of the elemental tug of war between secularism and spirituality, between colonialism and its victims, and how emotion and memory are colored by obsessive self-denial — it encompasses so much, and refuses to accept any state of its many occupants as some immovable, final thing. Despite its audacious, dramatic appearance, it comes across as truer to the ebbs and flows of real life than most cinema; it’s as complicated and rich as the night sky.
The picture is gorgeously photographed by Jack Cardiff, a magician who later shot some of the best-looking early U.S. color movies, such as The African Queen and the achingly beautiful Under Capricorn. It’s simple enough to compliment the film’s color, but it’s difficult to verbally convey how integral that color is to telling the film’s story: from the grays and whites of the original convent to the explosive Technicolor splendor and terror of the nuns’ open-ended, windswept and remote new location, without any forcible trickery the color alters the characters, the mood, the nature of the events we witness — and there are few modern analogues, at least with this degree of seriousness, to this brilliant use of the camera as canvas, which is reinforced by the astonishing, surreal use of soundstage sets, matte paintings and process shots to replicate a totally uncontrolled environment. Powell used to say that the only true genius of cinema was Walt Disney; today, since we associate Disney’s name so strongly with the sanitized family entertainment that has carried on since his death, it’s hard to immediately grasp such a statement, but those familiar with his actual life’s work are bound to find the influence considerably more palpable. Like Disney, Powell and Pressburger are here concerned with total immersion in the film’s world through any means necessary. They set out for complete purity of visual and aural expression, a feast for the senses — Brian Easdale’s music, with dramatic swells of oppressive tension, is haunting and horrifying; and the film’s use of dialogue is wonderfully sparse, especially as it nears its unforgettable silent ten-minute climax — and indeed, this single film contains more full use of its form than an entire year’s worth of Hollywood movies today.
If the basic story of Black Narcissus is of an entire group of people — the women attempting to foist their morals and perceived sophistication on the populace surrounding a former brothel — questioning their faith and ideals simultaneously, it nevertheless manages to successfully convey their individual personalities and struggles in surprisingly little time. The compassion and openness represented by Sister Honey, the micro-insubordination and uncontrollable yearning expressed by the aging gardener Sister Philippa, and the stern impatience and cracking veneer of Sister Briony are all elaborations of an unstated brokenness that feels organic and free of contrivance, though as troubled as they all are and come to be, none falls into the abyss like Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth, whose rebellion and obvious discomfort from our earliest encounters with her mount until absolute terror and madness overtakes her at the finale. Among the external factors pushing all of them toward a psychological version of the cliff’s edge over which their great bell hangs on the mountain is the entrance of a youthful heir of local royalty (Sabu) as a student despite the school not being intended for post-adolescent males (when initially denied, he points to the statue of Jesus on the cross behind him and says “Wasn’t he a man?” to which Clodagh flippantly replies “He… took the shape of a man” with grave displeasure in her eyes), whose freewheeling attitude, open communication, elegance, perfume and just straightforward beauty and charm appear to rattle all of the women present, if not out of a buried attraction to him than at least because of the long-foregone worldly pleasures his presence and unfiltered words call back to mind.
The Sister Superior, Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is perceived as too young for the responsibilities she’s been handed, and her contempt for the tradition of her new territory comes to feel increasingly performative and immature as she comes to doubt her place in the convent and in the world. Her initial attitude is exemplified by her sourness toward the presence of an old “Holy Man” who sits on a hill at the outskirts of the property. She wants him gone, and fast. “What would Jesus Christ have done?” the dashing male British ambassador Mr. Dean (David Farrar) asks her. Dean is the source of some, but by no means the greatest share, of the frustration and awakening desire among the nuns. He’s sometimes practical and reasonable, and certainly seems to be correct in his assumptions that the entire idea of turning the Palace of Mopu into a monastery is foolish and in his theory that they will depart before “the rains come”; but just as often he is crass and profane, dismissing the Indian people as “simple” and “primitive” and showing up drunk and loud for Christmas mass. Nonetheless, he serves even more than the frankness and audaciousness of Sabu’s Young General — who quickly cottons to a mute, poor dancer (Jean Simmons) dumped on the school by Mr. Dean — as a catalyst for Ruth’s complete retreat from faith and celibacy. Her hunger for his attentions and fascination with his boorish manner weaken what was already an uncertain resolve, and exacerbate the looseness of her grip on sanity… not in the sense that she is a fragile woman who can only be rescued by a man (he denies her advances out of hand anyway) or in the sense that the film posits sexuality itself as merely an expression or substitute for spiritual deliverance but because, as with the other nuns, she has brought herself to a place in which the uneasy boundary between the larger world and her own moral duties is unsustainable, and the arbitrary denial of her own desire in conjunction with the very same instability that likely brought her to the Sisters in the first place sets her on an inevitable path toward jealousy, murder, death.
There’s no sex onscreen in Black Narcissus and sex can in fact barely be mentioned in the dialogue as a consequence of heavy postwar censorship. Somehow, though, the film is among the most erotic ever made by virtue of its accumulation of almost subliminal suggestions; these are not in the vein of Irene Dunne slipping under the covers in The Awful Truth, no such winking steaminess permitted here, for instead the film is focused on the internal tearing-apart caused by unfulfilled desire, and what we’re given to understand by the symbols and vague implications and unstated Fordian longings and the hot, extreme atmosphere in which all this transpires is that the degree of forbidden arousal brewing here is an incalculable rush of blood that built up for years, in some cases decades — the sensuality in the film is more maddeningly restrained than in most Hays-era Hollywood comedies, true, but the sex being mulled over is more intensely private, more forbidden, and far more wildly scandalous than would be within the scope of a screwball comedy of remarriage.
It’s a film in which a character’s latent needs might be expressed by her insistence on planting various kinds of flowers instead of potatoes. It’s in everyone’s eyes and hands, and in the halting, careful space between the characters. There can be few sequences in classic cinema more frankly pornographic than the pulsating lipstick scene at the finale, which leaps off the screen, in which Ruth applies makeup and glares menacingly at Clodagh while the latter, terrified, attempts to feign reading the Bible. Her fear becomes ours when we endure the cold chills from the later final appearance of Ruth (a gloriously orgasmic scene that calls ahead directly to Vertigo), an injection of genuine Gothic horror that’s claustrophobic and intoxicating — and brilliantly edited, by Reginald Mills — and offers us one of the rawest and most involuntary emotional sensations achieved by a film, essentially an unmitigated explosion after more than an hour of everyone talking and acting around the deep changes happening in these people (“There’s nothing really wrong,” Mr. Deans says at one point while consoling Clodagh, who’s finally warmed up to him). The image of Ruth in her final state as she walks out onto the cliff is difficult to begin to convey verbally in its expression of complete given-up insanity amid the magnificence. Earlier, revolutionary visual techniques captured Clodagh’s attempts to dismiss her own emotions: one extraordinary flashback closes with her in her pre-nunnery days running to meet her onetime fiance; she opens the door and paces out, arms outstretched, into the complete blackness, and aptly we follow. Later, an injury to Ruth, and thus Ruth’s own deteriorating mental state, is extended to the viewer with a series of sharp, stabbing pure color shots — another strike between her emotional intensity and the repression surrounding her, more direct and less romantic than Clodagh’s because she’s so much less capable of a pretense of politeness and modesty, which you can read on Byron’s face from the beginning of the film. If all this is a wielding of power by the writer-directors, it’s just as directly an illustration of the film’s scary, humbling, possibly comforting message that even with every machination of civilized society and organization, one’s raw humanity can never be escaped.
Apart from the use of Jean Simmons in brownface — and her performance is nonetheless brilliant, including her brief dance sequence — the casting is among the most impeccable in any great film. Kerr’s intimate understanding of every nuance in her script is unmistakable in each of her scenes, with her face consistently revealing far more than her dialogue; a wonderful moment early on has her initially engaging with a sardonic remark about coffee from Mr. Dean before she catches herself and returns immediately to professional distance. As the three “minor” nuns, Jenny Laird, Judith Furse and especially Flora Robson are engaging and vivid, conveying nuances to their stories that aren’t accounted proper time in the screenplay. Byron is of course unforgettable as the troubled Sister Ruth, a multifaceted performance for the ages and one that must come quickly to mind when one thinks of the most indelible characterizations in film — as you revisit Black Narcissus over the years, you find more and more in her work, as in Kerr’s. Sabu plays the Young General’s naivete irresistibly, and manages to capture rugged dignity as well as universal sensuality. Speaking of dignity, Farrar obviously has a less complex character to play than the women in the main cast, but he’s an appealing actor and does the part proud, slightly resembling Humphrey Bogart in his affect but far handsomer, and he does well to present the character’s friendliness and darkness while taking into account the script’s implication that he’s quite condescending toward the native people with whom he appears to enjoy a great rapport, though his easy friendship with Mary Hallatt’s eccentric housekeeper Angu suggests another series of untold stories in the picture, which marks another of its many virtues: there is the sense that despite the limited time being depicted in Black Narcissus, we are learning everything we could need to about all of the characters’ pasts, and futures, couched in its commentary upon the rightful death of colonialism. The rains do come, just as the nuns are leaving, as Dean predicted; and in one of the most stunning shots — the final one, though briefly broken by a quick and probably unnecessary reaction shot of Farrar — we watch the drops fall for the first time on an unerring, dependable ecosystem that warmly greets them as the caravan of nuns trudges away in the distance.
The following is perhaps unnecessarily broad for a review of a single specific movie, but it’s on my mind this week. Certain films are more than entertainment, they move something in you, they show you something you didn’t expect to see and enrich you. Presumably the people who’ve had the patience to read this far don’t need to be told this, so I know that I’m preaching to the choir. But viewing this film again for the fifth or sixth time to rewrite this review, and living in its world again, was the sort of experience that makes me feel very fortunate to be alive to explore this world and the art embodied in it — I’ve no connection to nuns or to India and no outward reason to expect this story would affect me so deeply, or that its remote collection of events and impulses would manage to encompass such an incredibly broad scope of the human experience, mine and yours and everyone’s. When I see perfectly intelligent people who are willing to deny themselves experiences like this, because this is an “old film” (in what context?) or because it is a certain type of movie with a certain type of perceived elitist audience and intent, I feel so badly for them. I want everyone to have the opportunity to feel the way I do as Black Narcissus swells into its climactic moments and the final unresolved, sad but somehow heart-filling conclusion. Of course i know that’s impossible — art remains subjective no matter how much we love it, and maybe other people get these same feelings out of The Force Awakens or Guardians of the Galaxy, though I admit that instinctively (and no doubt unfairly) I have a hard time believing that. And all the same, my feeling is that the sense of everlasting beauty of this and its impact on me is more than a question of “liking” a “movie,” it’s a question of something genuinely affecting my way of thinking, my sense of what is right and beautiful, and wrong and evil, and in essence, my sense of what art can mean. The rest of my words about it above seem inadequate, and I could spend the day typing and not do any better… but these are true, that’s what this is: a work of art. I don’t know how selective I’ve ever been with that term, but Black Narcissus is one of the pieces that makes me want to be.
[Includes heavily cut, pasted and rephrased elements from the review — enchanted but somewhat less laudatory; I needed time — that I wrote of the film when I first saw it in 2006.]