Black Narcissus (1947)

Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar

Once again, I find myself a little lost for words trying to talk about a Powell and Pressburger movie, so once again I’ll go to a shot and try to work backwards. There are fewer famous images in Black Narcissus than in The Red Shoes, I think; nothing, not even Kathleen Byron’s “I’ve stayed up all night in the Himalayas and now I’m crazy” eyes, can quite match up to Moira Shearer’s “I’ve been dancing the ballet for so long that I’m placing the men I know into the ballet and now I’m crazy” eyes. Sister Ruth applying her lipstick, Sister Clodagh looking at something imperiously, Dean being shirtless and handsome at half a dozen moments in the film, Kanchi peeking under a partition at the Young General: each of them is in its own way a distinct image, but all of them fall short. They are images of people, and Black Narcissus is most successful when the people are shapes in white, or in some rich jewel tone, but not when they are in full focus.

It’s fortunate for several reasons that this film was released in 1947; thirty years later and it would have gotten a weird Fitzcarraldo treatment with filming on location; sixty years later and it would have been CGI’d to bits. Powell and Pressburger rely on a model of the Palace of Mopu (“the House of St. Faith,” come on) and paintings to set their scene, making a fairy tale of India and the subcontinent. Old-fashioned orientalism is the order of the day in Black Narcissus; much is made of the sexual tension which steeps over the course of an hour and a half, of how Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth fall, to varying degrees, under the spell of the brusquely charming Mr. Dean. Less discussed is how Esmond Knight and Jean Simmons, both of whom are very white, are made up in whatever the British term is for blackface to play the Old General and Kanchi. (It’s my inclination to believe this wouldn’t play terribly well in 2007 either, but then again, Crash had just won Best Picture two years before.) May Hallatt, playing an ugly old Indian woman, does not require the style of the Old General (with his Garibaldi beard, turned-up mustache, and crimson outfit) nor the silent sluttiness of Kanchi (who is, uh, something else). It’s a generic point of view for the 1940s, and the 1840s for that matter, to view the East as some place more primitive where emotion takes control, the libido is released, and reason is set free to play in the jungle or in the high mountains or wherever else. For a film released in 1947, the same year as Indian independence, the ahistorical reading is to call Black Narcissus one final filmic middle finger directed at the crown jewel of the dwindling British Empire.

That’s part of the reason why I don’t care as much to focus on the people; it’s hard to watch it and not feel icky in 2016, like you’ve just gotten a close-up to a very melancholy minstrel show. Focusing on the white people playing white people is less icky, even if one still has to confront the fact that they are only this sexualized because they happen to have landed themselves in India. Being in India has given Dean the license to walk around shirtless and in short khaki shorts, an ad for a late ’70s bathhouse. He does not exactly sidle up to Sister Clodagh, who must be the most beautiful nun ever put on screen, and he does not give much more than kindness to Sister Ruth, who is, as the kids say, thirsty. On the whole, his attitude toward them both is more than a little condescending, utterly certain that the nuns will be forced to abandon Mopu in a matter of months. Despite his attitude, both find themselves changing themselves in reaction to him; Sister Clodagh, who is usually rather sensible, is made totally irrational by him, and Sister Ruth decides to leave the order in an attempt to take Dean for herself. Dean is thus at the root of their failures, as Sister Clodagh’s increasingly erratic decision making is the primary reason the House of St. Faith fails, and Sister Ruth, of course, plunges to her death from that great height in the picture above. The ickiness is not merely the orientalist perspective of the text, but its fairly chauvinistic approach to the women who just can’t seem to get anything right. Sister Clodagh is overconfident, and is forced to humble herself. Sister Ruth simply hasn’t the disposition to be a nun. Sister Honey doesn’t have the sand to stomach hard facts, where Sister Briony is a touch too logical. Sister Philippa is totally distracted. If only they had listened to Dean. Lives could have been saved, and egos managed, and the terrible introspection that Clodagh and Philippa and Ruth had come into the order to avoid in the first place could have been staved off.

It’s the place that makes Black Narcissus function as a film, and looking at it as optimistically as possible, there’s something to that which is addressed in the text. From the beginning, the Palace of Mopu is set up as a building which is simply unsuited to holy orders. Despite its austere white facade, the palace – rather like Clodagh and friends, naturally – is hiding something more risque inside. Paintings of naked women adorn the walls, certainly the nunnery that Hamlet had in mind for Ophelia to get to, and whatever nakedness these nuns indulge in, particularly mental exposure, reveals itself over time. Robson’s Sister Philippa has the appropriately weather-beaten face of a woman who has worked outside for years, and on whom the toll of the Himalayas can be measured accordingly. You can see too far from up here, she says. It’s a gnomic message, but none the less clear for it; you can see too much about oneself in isolation, and self-understanding is unkind more often than not. For Sister Clodagh, who left a wealthy family because she was spurned – accidentally! – by a man she had fallen for, Mopu has given her too much time alone to think to herself about Con, and about Ireland, and about a life she has given up a year at a time.

What I like about the shot at the top of this post is that it gives the clear sense of height, of being nine thousand feet up, in a place where acrophobia no longer exists. It is rational to be afraid of falling; there is no safety net hundreds or thousands of feet down. When Ruth slips in her attempt to send Clodagh over the edge, she has enough time while falling, perhaps as much as a minute, to rattle off a Hail Mary and pray for God to forgive her sins before she splatters her guts in the jungle below. In an unfamiliar, inhospitable place such as Mopu, there is no room for error. And yet it seems that only a very small handful of the cast of Black Narcissus can say that they have not come too close to the edge, if they’re honest with themselves.

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