Friday, 5 December 2014

Review: Black Narcissus

Figure 1: Release poster (Lonely Planet)
  • Native Title: Black Narcissus
  • Primary Language: English
  • Format: Techniolour
  • Year of release: 1947
  • Director: Michael Powell, Eric Pressburger
  • Budget: est. £280,000
  • Film Length: 100 minutes
  • Production Company: Archer, Metro Goldwyn Meyer

    Another dark drama. Black Narcissus is the tale of a group of nuns sent to establish a remote mountain parish deep in the Himalayas. Over the course of a year, the cohesion between them begins to break down as something about their new home (a former pleasure palace) and the environment around bring out deeply-buried feelings and desires of the nuns.

Figure 2: The palace of Mopu (Dufresne, Lebland, Vaillat,
    Many things about the location paint it as fantastical, mystical and largely otherworldly compared to the uniform and real-world feel of the nunnery in Calcutta where the film starts. The palace itself is filled with erotic imagery seen during a series of interior panning shots  The entire palace is.perched on a vertical cliff face, with the bell situated on its precipice to give anyone who resided there a view of the lush valley below and the view provided is stunning, "Vast cubicles of matte paintings seem both deep enough to get lost in and flat enough to echo screams of fright and pleasure for years; prosthetic bamboo trunks smart even more intensely than real ones when tripped over." (Lanther, 2012) but the images go on for many miles and gives the feel as though every exterior shot is filmed on-location. But we are shown that this is not the highest-up sign of life around, as even higher up from the palace lives an old man who we are told does nothing but sit and contemplate silently, not saying a word.

    Its subtle but at many moments after about halfway though the film there appears to be a battle for dominance between red light and blue light, which gives a subtle feel that there are two atmospheres fighting for dominance in a given scene, these become more intense at strenuous moments but one of the most intense colour changes is near the climax when Sister Ruth faints, with the screen gets filled with an intense red that covers everything

    While the nuns do make an attempt to turn the palace into a fitting house of asceticism, contemplation and charity, it is as if the world does not like this imported world and seeks to return to its old vibes of eroticism and excess, which seem in tune with the aforementioned battle between red and blue. "[Sister Clodgah] and the four sisters accompanying her are serene in their faith that they know what’s best, but they’re undone, one by one, by the altitude, the constant wind, the teeming jungle below, and by the presence of the local British land agent (David Farrar), a strapping atheist with a manly chest and short shorts" (Burr, 2010). In the beginning, the Old General offers them a constant supply of sausages. Not long after they move in, the local emissary for the general, Mr. Dean, wishes for the nuns to take in a local teenage girl who was dressing herself up in order to seek his hand in marriage. Another character, the Young General, is always seen in ravishing Indian outfits that would look more at home in the courts of the Raj than a remote mountain palace. In one scene he ends up stinking out the classroom with an imported perfume asking if the teacher likes the smell. Further in we have instances such as Mr. Dean joining a winter chapel chorus, drunk, I might add, and it is revealed two thirds though the film that SiIster Honey - who was put in charge of the house's vegetable garden - out of a supressed impulese she instead grew a variety of flowers while keeping the vegetable patch somewhere at the back of the palace.

Figure 3: Winner of the "1947 Most Terrifying Eveningwear"
award. (Burr, 2010)
    The apex of the tempting environment is the fall of Sister Ruth as she "eventually is overcome by her desire for an agnostic Englishman who spurns her after she resigns from the Order of the Servants of Mary" (Pryor, 1947). Even when we meet her she is established though her performance as being the youngest and most naive as she makes her debut running into Sister-Superior Clodagh's office terrified and covered in blood, a mere "thank you" from Mr. Dean as he leaves begins a downward spiral of obsession that leads her to expressing herself in her room and desiring a repeat of the affections she thought Mr Dean showed for her. Her total change is into what might very well be one of the most frightening yet simplified costume changes in cinema. As at the climax, gone is her habit and we see her with permed hair and a scarlet dress. Aside from the starched shoulders this dress semms almost like everyday wear yet In terms of intimidation factor it is up there with Darth Vader's armour, and as she grows more insane the look only gets worse as her face becomes pale and her hair becomes black as night. The effect might not have been as strong or as frightening had she not spent the entire film unti lthen in a nun's habit - an outfit designed to be devoid of glamour or appeal. I suppose the effect is like spending an entire week eating nothing but porriage then on Sunday you are served pasta in sauce; it's not extravogent but because you've spent all that time experiencing something bland, your senses almost explode over even a minor taste change due to the change.

Figure 4: From bad to worse; Ruth's final transformation and
her most dreaded look (
    As I mentioned, Sister Ruth only gets worse "her final appearance in the film, gaunt and wraithlike, is still one of the scariest moments in British cinema history" (Bradshaw, 2005). Pale, crazed, her eyes staring with murderous intent as she sees her former superior ringing a bell. There exists a storytelling device where the villain is terrifying not only because of the atrocities they perform, but because they started off like any other person - calm, innocent, unremarkable. I suppose this connects with the "porridge and pasta" analogy from earlier, as Sister Ruth may not have been the most innocent-looking (that honour goes to Sister Honey) but she was quite unremarkable compared to everyone else and became almost like the wraith Bradshaw describes her as appearing to be; a fitting transformation to match the inner transformation from a young and ill woman into a jealous and vengeful wraith of a woman with murder on the mind.

Image References


  1. Another fantastic review Mark :)

    Make sure you are consistently italicising your quotes - the first one seems to have slipped through the net.
    Check out your image numbering - you have 2 lots of 1 and 2 lots of 2 at the moment :) Also, when referencing your images, you only need the figure number, a caption and the date of creation.

    1. Thank you for the notifications. I appreciate it.