Black Narcissus, 1947, Powell & Pressburger
This post is part of the 1947 Blogathon hosted by Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy.
I was at dinner with friends a few months ago, one of whom happens to be a huge Powell & Pressburger fan. We were sharing thoughts on their 1940s output, pretty much raving about film after film. When we got to Black Narcissus, without thinking I said, “I just love the locations they used.” The thing is, they didn’t use locations, and I knew that. Everything was a set, but for a split second as I reached down into my memory bank about this film, my first image was the castle near a cliff at high Himalayan elevation. My thought was not of the matte paintings or miniatures, but the fantasy that they created.
The remainder of the film notwithstanding, the creation of this world is a marvel. Sure the matte paintings of the mountains in the opening sequence scream matte paintings. As they establish the “location” with a series of shots, it is easy to tell if you look carefully that they are using miniatures, especially viewing with modern eyes. As the film progresses, however, it begins to feel like real India. We get lost in that world, thanks to Michael Powell’s idea to shoot everything in the studio, and Jack Cardiff and Alfred Junge’s monumental work to make Pinewood Studios not only look like the Himalayas, but for it to look magnificent.
I could go on gushing about the sets, the use of color, but the pictures do most of the justice. Under this gorgeous backdrop is a story of isolation, perseverance, self-repression, and at the core, eroticism. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is charged with an expedition to open a convent in Mopu, to educate and assist the locals, in challenging, arduous terrain that slowly wears her and her fellow sisters down.
Deborah Kerr has proven repeatedly that she is a tremendous actress. One of her most impressive turns was the triple-role she played in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. In Black Narcissus, she has to play an entirely different type of character, but she pulls it off magnificently. As you see from the above tweet, she was poised and composed most of the time. Her performance shined in the nuances – the brief moments that she let her guard down. When a masculine figure like Mr. Dean makes a suggestive comment, we can see that it registers and she hesitates, but she is aware of her position of leadership and hiding her true feelings.
We see in flashbacks that Sister Clodagh was not always a chaste, innocent servant to religion. At one point, she had a love in her life and a carefree lifestyle doing something just for fun — fishing. During her moments of weakness in Mopu, she longs to return to those halcyon and unobtainable days in her life, lamenting the life of solitude that she has chosen for herself.
All of the Sisters face their own challenges, and one of the obstacles that Clodagh faces is dealing with attrition. However, her most notable adversary is Sister Ruth, played to perfection by Kathleen Byron. Ruth is stubborn at times, and highly sensitive at others. While Clodagh is quietly and stoically beginning to crack, Ruth is not just unraveling, but spiraling out of control. She falls the furthest from grace, and the rivalry between the two women makes the final act memorable, but this time I will not spoil the ending. Plus, I’m getting ahead of myself.
When one thinks of a nun movie, erotic is not a word that would come to mind, yet Black Narcissus is stacked with eroticism, which is the undercurrent for how the plot plays out. The world of Mopu is an erotic world. The nuns decide to take in one of the young local Generals (Sabu) for political reasons, and he dresses ornately and wears the titular cologne that he calls “Black Narcissus.” The naming of the scent speaks to the futility of the nun’s cause, and how the idea of civilizing the local “Black” population is a narcissistic exercise under the questionable philosophy of “White Man’s Burden.” Yet, the scent is intoxicating, and the Sisters find themselves attracted to the General’s charms.
The most sexualized character is a male, Mister Dean, who serves to mentor the women. He is their western conduit that informs them of the eastern ways, but he is also the most significant threat to their vows. He is a temptation for the women, and just like the constant wind, he slowly weathers down Sisters Clodagh, Ruth, and others. He is introduced wearing shorts and revealing clothing, and he is portrayed by David Farrar as a masculine outdoorsman. In one scene he arrives at their sanctuary not even wearing a shirt. What is the practical benefit of shedding clothing at elevation with the wind constantly blowing?
Ruth admires Dean from a distance, but he interacts with Sister Clodagh regularly. She manages to keep her true feelings close to the chest, but there are many suggestive lines of dialogue, quick glances, tiny fissures in her icy exterior that show she is aware of the temptation. In one early scene she notes that they are to talk business, and Dean responds that, “I don’t suppose you’d want to talk about anything else.” That other, unspeakable subject is of romance, or more specifically eroticism, voicing the prospective attraction they hold for each other. They play games, at times civil, at others hostile. In one scene, Dean sings Christmas Carols while drunk. Clodagh pushes him away, which is in part distancing herself from the threat by telling him “you’re objectionable when you’re sober and abominable when you’re drunk!”
The other sexualized character is Kanchi, played by a young Jean Simmons as her career was beginning. Kanchi is taken in by the convent as a pity project, but she is the antithesis of everything the Sisters represent. She is beautiful, wearing seductive jewelry and clothing, and even does a provocative dance. While the nuns have to keep their eyes aloof, Kanchi overtly presents herself as a sexual object. When the General reveals his cologne, the Sisters have no choice but to ignore the magnetism of the scent, but Kanchi holds nothing back. She savors in the charms of the General, and even though she is low by birth, she does everything in her power to win over the young, vulnerable man.
This sexual tension progresses throughout the first two acts, and it is the third act in which the Sisters, specifically Clodagh and Ruth, are faced with it directly. It is not a sword, gun or any other weapon of war that sets the film toward its thrilling conclusion, but a mere tube of lipstick.
Film Rating: 9/10
Commentary 1988 with Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese.
This is a commentary I had already heard, so I did not re-listen/re-watch. I remember it being an excellent commentary, as was their commentary on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Much of what they discuss is repetitive with the information found on the other features of this disc.
Bernard Tavernier: 2006 Introduction.
This was the first time they had adapted an existing work and not wrote their own screenplay. As Tavernier puts it, they adapted “between the lines” of Rumer Godden’s novel. We learned from The River that she was not satisfied with their adaptation and was careful to make sure Renoir would handle the material to her liking.
The Audacious Adventurer: 2006 Bertrand Tavernier interview.
Marie Maurice brought the book to Powell and Pressburger, and said they should adapt the film and she should play Sister Ruth. At first Powell did not pursue the film because he did not want to adapt other material. After the war, Powell had been tired of war films. Pressburger then remembered the book and talked him into the project, but Maurice did not get the part.
Casting was the next task. Kerr was the first to be suggested, but Powell discounted her because she was too young. Kerr heard this and when they had lunch, she convinced Powell that she was just right for the part. She said that age wouldn’t matter. Jean Simmons caused controversy because Olivier had contracted her to play Ophelia, and he took exception to her playing an erotic Indian. There was some friction between Olivier and Powell as they discussed/debated Simmons.
Jack Cardiff had not been a Director of Photography on a film, but had worked for Technicolor. Powell took a risk in hiring him for his first film, and the rest is history. He won the Oscar for Cinematography and would continue to collaborate with Powell, and had a highly successful career.
Powell decided on shooting everything at Pinewood because they would never be able to match the exteriors in India with shots inside a London studio. Cardiff and Junge had harsh reactions. They creatively looked for solutions, and decided to use miniatures and glass. Lucas and Spielberg have said that the special effects had never been matched.
Profile of Black Narcissus: 2000 making-of documentary.
They have interviews with Jack Cardiff, Kathleen Byron, and many others.
After a series of major successes and the previous year’s A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger were at the top of their game. The question was what would they come up with next, which of course resulted in this ambitious project about ex-patriot nuns in the Himalayas.
The entire film had been shot in the British Isles. Not one frame was shot elsewhere. Pinewood became this exotic far away land. Cardiff said that after the film, they had letters saying that people had recognized places they had visited. This he felt reinforced that they had succeeded with the charade.
The tension between Sister Ruth and Mr. Dean was heightened by their off-set relationship. Byron says he had crushes on many women. As she puts it, “we were very close at one time, but it was not for very long.”
Painting with Light: 2000 documentary about Jack Cardiff’s work.
They have a number of interviews, including Martin Scorsese, Hugh Laurie, Cardiff and others.
Cardiff shows the mechanisms in the camera that shows how the color was captured. Scorsese says that films were continually being used for entertainment (as they still are) and Technicolor was used for popular genre films. It added about 25% to the budget
One thing Cardiff did was collected the best technicians around, and had a wonderful art director. It was a tough process and they needed Technicolor consultants on the set at all the time. They had to make sure the colors were right, and even had to dye the shirts to make sure the white did not contrast. The actual colors were bright “Technicolor colors.”
Vermeer was used as a model as to how to portray the light, but as Cardiff puts it, in the Vermeer paintings, the people did not move around. He used the Van Gogh pool hall painting as a model for another scene. Rembrandt was used to inspire other scenes.
Criterion Rating: 9.5/10