not in our stars, but in ourselves
Oh, WOW. WOW! Black Narcissus (1947) had been on my must-see list for a long time, but for some reason it took me until yesterday to get around to seeing it. And am I ever sorry I waited. Madness in the mountains, covetousness in the convent, bats in the belfry – it’s got everything. This is one of those Gesamtkunstwerk films: a total work of art, in every aspect of its conception and execution. Co-directors and -writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a film light-years ahead of its time. Even now, watching it in the early years of the 21st century, it felt just as fresh and brilliant as it must have felt in 1947. Perhaps even more so.
It’s about an order of nuns working in India, trying hard to “civilize” the natives. The nuns almost never question the necessity of their colonializing work, but the film certainly does. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, appearing “by arrangement with Metro Goldwyn Mayer,” as the opening titles proclaim) is called upon by her order’s Reverend Mother (Nancy Roberts) to start a new convent, school, and hospital high up in the Himalayas. She will be the Sister Superior – and, as Mother Dorothea reminds her, “the superior of all is the servant of all.” The building that is to serve as the new convent was, not so very long ago, a local general’s whorehouse. Voluptuous images of reclining women adorn the walls – stark contrasts to the nuns, covered in heavy white cloth from head to toe. Up so high in the mountains, the air is too clear; the wind unrelenting; the drop from their new home down to the jungle below lethally high and steep. At the bidding of the area’s prince and general, British colonial liaison Mr. Dean (David Ferrar) is to help the nuns settle in. He happens to be a nonchalantly amoral, extraordinarily handsome man.
Clodagh tries to pretend she doesn’t notice. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) cannot pretend otherwise. The soaring mountains and constant wind fan her fancy out of control, and soon the convent descends into madness.
Cinematographer Jack Cardiff deserves all the possible awards and plaudits for his work here, as does art director Alfred Junge. Early in the film, as Cardiff himself said, the intended look was Vermeer. By the end, it has morphed from that to Rembrandt to Caravaggio – and finally to Van Gogh. As the nuns’ insular, spiritual world is invaded by the mountains’ alluring worldly pleasures, the colors become brighter and more garish. Rather than milky white light, Clodagh and Ruth are bathed in fiery red by the setting sun.
In the end, Ruth renounces her vows, dresses herself (quite becomingly) in a wine-colored dress, and applies blood-red lipstick before racing down the mountain into the jungle to throw herself at Mr. Dean.
Color, color, color – very carefully kept from any of the nuns until the film’s climax. I cannot – and I’ve been trying – think of any other Technicolor film that uses its technology to such brilliant effect.
Junge, for his part, achieved an extraordinary effect. The entire film was shot in England and Ireland, mostly in studios. I suppose if you watch with a highly critical eye, you might be able to tell that it wasn’t actually shot in the Himalayas. However, when I was lost in the film and enraptured by the scenery, the story, and the sheer artistry, I would have believed you if you’d told me it had been shot entirely on location. Usually, studio recreations of the great outdoors feel small and cramped. Not so here.
If I were to offer any criticism of Black Narcissus, it would be rather beside the point. I do not attempt to excuse racism in any way, at any time, and I did roll my eyes and sigh slightly that two of the three Indian characters were played by white people in brownface (Esmond Knight as the prince/general and Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a slutty teenage girl who’s set her cap at Mr. Dean and whom he wants to get rid of). I can’t offer any excuse for that, but alas: it was 1947. England was just beginning to lose its grasp on its many colonies, but its attitudes toward the many indigenous people within were still fairly reprehensible. So it goes. Powell and Pressburger, it must be said, seem to understand that colonialism was at best a fruitless exercise for all concerned; at worst, mutually assured destruction. Mr. Dean is the voice of skepticism throughout: he never attempts to impose his country’s will on any of the area’s native people. He does his best to understand and to defer to their customs and wishes. When Sister Clodagh wishes impatiently that a holy man living on the convent’s grounds would leave, Dean wryly proclaims, “He was here first.” That’s colonialism in a nutshell, isn’t it?
There are politically incorrect touches, sure, but don’t let that stop you from seeing Black Narcissus immediately. There’s nothing like it, really. It’s a psychological drama, it’s a work of art, it’s terrifying and beautiful and tense and awe-inspiring. Powell and Pressburger, known together as “The Archers,” have hit a bulls-eye.