This essay on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) was written by Zachary Zahos, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison and Project Assistant for the UW-Cinematheque. A new digital restoration of Black Narcissus will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, December 1. Free admission!
By Zachary Zahos
“This clear air, and the wind always blowing. And the mountain, and the holy man sitting there day in, day out. And the people coming to see him. They climb the path by the house, and they stop and sit and stare at us.” So rants Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to the uncouth government agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar), her fellow countryman, as they make their way up a mountain, through vines and brush, to see the elderly holy man (Ley On) themselves. Ironies abound in Sister Clodagh’s complaint: For one, she rebukes the native peoples of Mopu, a fictitious village somewhere near Darjeeling, for ogling her convent of Anglican nuns, before doing the same to this presumably Hindu man.
An obvious hypocrisy, but Black Narcissus succeeds not because it is exactly, or at least exclusively, subtle. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 Technicolor spectacle is an unclassifiable object: hothouse melodrama, gothic horror, pioneering erotic thriller, cautionary tale of colonial overreach. The scenario—a group of English nuns struggle to repress desires provoked by their Himalayan surroundings, and by a scantily clad David Farrar—lends itself to frequent scenes of hysteria, innuendo, and bald hypocrisy. Atop such a dramatically thin premise, Powell and Pressburger fashion a vast, interlocking formal architecture of motifs, oppositions, rhymes, and fluid points of view. Like all great films, the film’s craft, and indeed much of its meaning, is not too difficult to discern on first viewing, but its cumulative intellectual, sensorial, and emotional effect remain nigh-impossible to do justice. Blessed with such pleasure-affording parts, Black Narcissus nevertheless exceeds their sum handily.
As one of the pearls of classical British cinema, Black Narcissus has been analyzed exhaustively since its release. UW-Madison’s own Kristin Thompson undertook one of the more illuminating efforts this past May with “Color Motifs in Black Narcissus,” a video essay for FilmStruck’s Observations on Film Art series. (Though FilmStruck is no more, the series will continue on The Criterion Channel, a forthcoming streaming service from Criterion and WarnerMedia.) Thompson describes the power wielded by an oft-overlooked agent in the film’s production: Natalie Kalmus, color supervisor for virtually all Technicolor films made between 1934 and 1949. In her pursuit of a uniform Technicolor aesthetic, Kalmus required cinematographers to use a light meter, meaning that excessive shadows or overexposure, even when intentional, were not allowed.
On at least one occasion, Thompson explains, cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who won an Oscar along with production designer Alfred Junge) and Kalmus’s Technicolor team were at loggerheads over this issue of “flare.” Eighty-four minutes into the film, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) runs through the convent to find Sister Clodagh and Dean, in one of the many instances of shifting point-of-view between these three main characters. At the bottom of a striking shot, when Ruth swings open the doors, a sharp blade of sunlight reflects off the floor. Because this bright spot deviated from their standards, the Technicolor consultants considered the shot ruined. Cardiff responded with fury, and the shot survived to see the final cut. “My indignation was excusable,” Cardiff later reflected, “after the trouble I had in getting that flare as glaring as possible, just like one indeed sees it when the sun is low and dazzling. And though it was admittedly ugly, I believe it was more dramatic than a typically pleasant effect.” While I personally find this flare not ugly but gorgeous, Cardiff describes with eloquence a hard-fought commitment to realism, in the service of drama.
Cardiff’s stated intentions are instructive, insofar as they remind the viewer of the care and even the strife that went into crafting each shot. They furthermore puncture received wisdom we may bring into watching this film. Despite featuring, well, color, Technicolor movies were seen by many critics and theorists in the 1940s and 1950s as paradigms of artifice, especially when sized against black-and-white Italian Neorealist films. But Powell, Pressburger, and Cardiff were invested in their own style of realism. In addition to these pictorial flourishes, and the general astonishment many have when learning it was filmed in England’s Pinewood Studios, the film features an immersive, sensual soundscape, of tunneling wind, tolling bells, and ceremonial drums beating into the night.
The drama of Black Narcissus furthermore hinges on a haunting and unresolved psychological realism. According to Sister Clodagh, and virtually all critics, the nuns lose sight of their mission due to the sensuousness of their surroundings. The opening voiceover proclaims the Mopu valley’s dominant mountain is called Nanga Dalle, or “Bare Goddess Peak.” Moreover, the would-be convent was formerly a palace, decked in erotic tapestries, where the old General (Esmond Knight) “kept his women.” All this stimuli and history, clashing with the nuns’ puritan work ethic and disavowal of sexual desire, lead to some erratic behavior. Charged with growing staple crops, Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) instead, inexplicably, plants native flowers like honeysuckle. When Sister Clodagh confronts her, Sister Philippa volunteers to be reassigned and punished without mercy. Robson’s moving performance in this scene illustrates a painful tug between doctrine and all-consuming sorrow, service to God and sexual desire, repentance and sadomasochism. Her plight mirrors those of all the nuns, and their failure.
Before departing, Sister Philippa muses how in Mopu there are only two types of man. On one side, there is the mute, celibate holy man, and on the other, the arrogant, promiscuous Mr. Dean, whose resting virility basically drives Sister Ruth mad and fuels the climactic action of the film. Philippa neglects to mention Joseph, a precocious local child, or the Young General (Sabu), a dandyish aristocrat whose cologne inspires the film’s title. Even still, the duality Sister Philippa proposes, between Dean and the holy man, fails to hold up. Dean reveals the holy man’s military past, and insinuates he once led a lavish lifestyle. Dean himself softens over the course of the film, forming a genuine and chaste kinship with Sister Clodagh. By the end, it is Dean, and not the holy man, who leaves Mopu, but the possibility for change and complication persists. Rather than direct these possibilities toward a hackneyed, uplifting ending, Powell and Pressburger ultimately side with mystery, as the onset of fog and coming of rain signal powers at work far greater than any empire.