An Appreciation – Black Narcissus
At first glance, the premise of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film Black Narcissus (1947) was one that I was not entirely excited to see. The story about a group of nuns sent out to the high hilltops of the Himalayan Mountains to establish a school and hospital sounded drab to me. By its end, though, I was riveted. The film is about so much more than just nuns; it is about the repressed emotions and passions that come with vowing to become one. That’s where the true tension of The Archers’ (as Powell and Pressburger were known) story is set: in seeing who will be able to keep themselves in control, and who will fall in to the dark side and allow this new and amazing world to encompass them. It is a film about bold colors and enormous landscapes, about tension and eroticism boiling beneath the façades that our characters so desperately try to put up.
For a film that was released in December 1947, it feels surprisingly modern and contemporary. It doesn’t feel dated at all, even though it is more than sixty years old. I believe part of the reason for its modern feel is the topic Powell and Pressburger decided to tackle, and how they went about executing that. To me, Powell and Pressburger were very much ahead of their time, creating stories that felt slightly sinister in their approach and handling themes that could have been considered taboo. Take for instance their other great movie, The Red Shoes (1947). That film dealt with the obsessions that its lead character struggled through—split between her love of dance and her love for another person. Her personal torment would eventually lead to tragedy amongst all involved. To a lesser degree, their film Stairway to Heaven (1946), also known as A Matter of Life and Death, featured a protagonist who had to go to trial in the afterlife to save his very soul. Not many films that I have seen worked with their content in the same way that The Achers did with theirs, and I could easily see them making something like Black Swan (2010) if they were working today.
The story of Black Narcissus is no different than the others, and perhaps maybe even more of an example of the inventive and challenging ideas that they would present. The center of the film is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), dispatched by her elder sisters to take four other nuns and establish a new convent in the Himalayas. An important detail here to note is that Sister Clodagh would be the youngest Sister Superior to lead in the creation of a new convent. This is important to know because her inexperience, her naïveté to the challenge of creating and keeping a new convent working in this exotic place, will test her resolve and dedication to her mission. As her story progresses and her environment quickly surrounds her, we get flashbacks of who she once was, how she once was deeply in love with a man and how her world seemed to be in perfect place. Her nostalgia for that time and her yearning to feel that kind of happiness once again is one of the main points of suspense here, to see whether or not she is truly strong enough to be a Sister Superior.
It’s not just the fact that Sister Clodagh is the youngest leader in their order; the world in which the Himalayan convent is set contributes to the opening up of her and the other nuns that are present. To enter into the nunnery is to deny oneself certain passions, desires, and longings. Each of the sisters vowed to dedicate their life to servitude, to help spread knowledge and healthcare to others. When they finally make their way to the top of the mountain and into the grand palace to establish the convent, they enter an entire realm of temptation. The palace and surrounding area, which is owned by the Old General (Esmond Knight) and was abandoned by a religious brotherhood years before, work together as a metaphor for everything they have tried to repress. The open air stands as a sign of freedom and adventure; the bright colors of the palace walls and the many different kinds of the vegetation signify stirring passion and high emotion. Even the people who live there contribute. The members of the village, with their exotic clothing and unusual rituals, disturb the kind of traditional simplicity that the nuns try to practice. I feel the biggest contributing factor is the character of The Young General, played with great charisma by the Indian actor Sabu. His exuberant, lively attitude, eager to learn and experience as much as he can, is the epitome of how this place is affecting Sister Clodagh and her colleagues.
Michael Powell once said of the movie: “It is the most erotic film that I have ever made…it is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from beginning to the end.” Eroticism is clearly the underlying theme running rampant through the film. Sex, and the suggestion of sex, is everywhere. This makes the perfect support in regard to the film revolving around religion and the presence of nuns. It’s known that a life in celibacy is one of the main factors in becoming a nun, and because of that the ability to resist the temptations of the flesh must be that much stronger. Sister Clodagh and her order are put to the ultimate test. Take for example the palace, with its nude paintings decorated everywhere. It was once used to house The Old General’s harem, and the thoughts of what once happened in that place stick in the minds of the characters. The sexual attraction between The Young General and the village girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons) adds to the ongoing tension and directly hinders the convent’s chances of success. But most notably, the presence of The Old General’s agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), contributes the most to the eroticism of the film. An opinionated and strong-willed man, Mr. Dean is often times the only male that the nuns interact with. It’s no doubt that they are physically attracted to him, as quick glances and subtle body language are clear indicators. Plus, it doesn’t help that Mr. Dean is routinely seen wearing skin-revealing clothing, or sometimes without a shirt at all (even if there is no apparent reason for him to walk around without one).