Sunday, February 8, 2009

Black Narcissus


"There's something in the air here, it makes everything exaggerated." So says Dean (David Farrar), the local English agent in the isolated Indian village of Mopu, describing to a group of nuns the dangers of setting up a convent in an ancient palace perched on the side of a cliff, a place that once served as a harem for a general and his dancing girls. Indeed, there's something in the atmosphere of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus that is exaggerated, overheated, not just melodramatic but luridly so, as though strangled emotions are being unleashed at long last by the mountainous open air surrounding of the convent. Powell and Pressburger inscribe in every frame of the film, in every one of its lush, painterly images, the central conflict between spiritual restraint and the sensuous pleasures of romance, nature and sexuality. What's remarkable is that the filmmakers have an obvious respect for the virtue of the nuns, for their spirituality and devotion and desire to do good, and yet it's equally clear that these women will never be able to win out against the simply awe-inspiring splendor of their surroundings, the colorful grandeur of the images that Powell and Pressburger capture here.

The sister superior of this doomed convent, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), is a hard, righteous woman, proud and stubborn and fiercely in control of her emotions. And yet there's an inner core of sensitivity and warmth to her, as well as a long-suppressed past in which she was a very different woman: a daughter of a privileged family, deeply in love with a man she'd grown up with since very young. She joined the sisterly order as a way of escaping this lost past, of fleeing from the love she wasn't able to realize, but when she arrives in Mopu, she finds that the surroundings awaken in her these heretofore forgotten feelings and memories. Her austere, constrained present life begins fading more and more — via slow dissolves, themselves as sensuous as the scenery — into this happier, freer past, a past in which it seemed certain that she would soon be happily married, on her way to a different life than the religious cloister she finds herself in now.

In her new vocation, Clodagh is surrounded by women who are, like her, much deeper and more conflicted than the plain ghostly white of their loose frocks would suggest. Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) is a no-nonsense gardener, stern and wise, somewhat older than the other nuns, but even she finds herself distracted by the atmosphere, moved to plant beautiful flowers rather than the more practical but less aesthetic onions and potatoes she had been instructed to cultivate. Among the other nuns, the giggly Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) and kindly Sister Briony (Judith Furse) are especially distracted by the arrival of the elegant, bejeweled figure known only as the Young General (Sabu), whose fancy clothes and gemstones are the subject of much gossip around the convent. But perhaps none of the nuns is more affected by this place than Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who has always felt somewhat left out among her fellow sisters, always an outcast who doesn't quite belong in the order, and who in Mopu is increasingly driven near-mad by her desire to cast off her robes and give herself up to sensual pleasures instead. Her sickly, wild-eyed performance is amazing, culminating in her descent into disheveled madness at the film's denouement, looking like a pale, heavily made-up vampire as she skulks around the convent's shadowy corridors.


Powell and Pressburger make sure that this atmosphere of lush, natural sensuality is not only felt in the transformations of the sisters. The film itself is awash in images of such jaw-dropping sensuality that one cannot help but be seduced, along with the faltering nuns, into embracing the wild beauty and overpowering aesthetic bliss of this place. In this mountain stronghold, the wind is always blowing, in powerful gusts that make the nuns' habits flutter in long trails around their heads. The wind's howl and low whisper is omnipresent on the soundtrack, whistling through the convent's halls. Other sounds of the surroundings also infiltrate these walls. Drums pound in the distance to signal the local people's commitment to religious and spiritual ideas that long predate their tenuous association with Christianity. Like the implacably silent holy man who sits on the convent's grounds, unmoving and silently worshiped by all, these drums indicate a religious communion with this place, with the land and the mountain air, very different from the self-denial proffered by the newly arrived nuns. The convent's bell, echoing among the mountainous peaks, is answered by the plaintive moan of native horns, a long, soulful blast that sounds like it's born from the roaring wind itself. The tinkle of bells and bracelets announces every movement of the Young General or the slyly seductive dancing girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a young orphan who the nuns agree to take in to calm her untamed sexuality.

Soon enough, of course, the free-spirited Kanchi sets her sights on the General, seducing him with her large green eyes and the slow, deliberate shimmy of her walk, so different from the shuffling of the sexless nuns. In one remarkable scene, Kanchi does a sexy Indian dance for herself in a large empty room, her hips swaying from side to side, her movements causing the loose folds of her dress to cling to her body and reveal the womanly curves so otherwise carefully hidden in this place of God. She gently sashays around the room, admiring herself in the mirrors on the walls, a gesture that Powell and Pressburger reserve for those who have embraced sensuality and rejected spirituality — the only other characters in the film to look in a mirror are the convent's benefactor, the worldly Old General (Esmond Knight) and Sister Ruth, after she's cast off her vows. Kanchi, looking in a mirror, is admiring herself, admiring the frank sexuality with which she dances, admiring the way her own body moves and her skirts twirl up to reveal her lithe legs.

Powell and Pressburger present scenes like this with a loving attention to detail that makes it obvious that, no matter how complex and sympathetic the nuns are, the film's sympathies lie with those who are able to make peace with the sensuality of the world rather than trying to turn their backs on it. The surroundings are rendered in gorgeous, eye-popping Technicolor, with a stunning artificiality achieved by using backdrops hand-colored with pastel chalks. The shots of the natural world have a heightened, blown-out quality, with colors possessing the outrageous clarity of a painting rather than the more prosaic hues of the true natural world. The mountains and the rich green fields around the convent are thus allied with the bright fabrics of the Young General or Kanchi, with whom he eventually falls in love: these characters, like the rugged, uncouth Dean, are in communion with the world around them in a way the nuns, trying to maintain their unstained white habits, can never be.

7 comments:

The Maiden said...

I've always admired this amazing movie. A movie I was introduced to as a child. A really great review!

Sam Juliano said...

Well, Ed, your lyrical and poetic writing gifts which give a number of your reviews a musical quality could hardly have been bettered than in this magnificent essay, which captures the sensory qualities of this Technicolor delight (my personal favorite Powell and Pressburger film, edging ahead of COLONEL BLIMP, THE RED SHOES and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH)

"Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus that is exaggerated, overheated, not just melodramatic but luridly so, as though strangled emotions are being unleashed at long last by the mountainous open air surrounding of the convent. Powell and Pressburger inscribe in every frame of the film, in every one of its lush, painterly images, the central conflict between spiritual restraint and the sensuous pleasures of romance, nature and sexuality."

And therein, of course lies the essence an dintent of this sensual experience. I must say I was fascinated by your exhautive character descriptions there of Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth. Of the latter you say: "pale, heavily made-up vampire as she skulks around the convent's shadowy corridors...."

Beautiful writing on a beautiful film.

Tony Dayoub said...

I second what Sam said.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, everyone. I'm going to be exploring a lot more Powell/Pressburger here in coming months. This film is just so visually sumptuous, it's overwhelming. It's all about the mood and atmosphere it creates, like it's trying to put the audience into the mental space of the characters by making the physical space they inhabit just so vibrant.

Kevin Wilson said...

An insightful look on a fantastic film, surely one of the finest to ever emerge from the UK. The Himalayas, which were painted sets at Pinewood actually work better than location shooting given that it's a film about disorientation, losing oneself and repressed passions. Nothing here is real and neither should it be. Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth) recently passed away and her performance is one of the finest I have ever seen. She captures the hysteria of a woman consumed by erotomania, and that moment where she applies her lipstick in extreme close up in front of Sister Clodagh is so striking, so for want of a better word, sexy. It's perfect, though Rumer Godden was less impressed with this adaptation of her work than she was with Renoir's 'The River' by all accounts.

Ed Howard said...

Kevin, you're right that the film's artificial sets contribute to its unique atmosphere: it's not the Himalayas but a wildly exaggerated version of the mountains, the essence of mountain scenery distilled into each image.

I also love that lipstick closeup. It reminds me quite a bit of the end of Godard's Hail Mary, another film about the intersections of spirituality and sensuality.

hokahey said...

Although the story moves slowly, it is always visually stunning, and it builds to a dark, suspenseful climax. The image posted above of Sister Clodagh at the bell is one of the most amazing images ever shot; it gives me shivers every time I see it - though you might wonder why the hell they put the bell there in the first place.