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Black Narcissus: Empire of the Senses

“It is the most erotic film that I have ever made,” wrote Michael Powell of Black Narcissus. “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.” In his winningly grand manner, Powell was calling attention to what has become his 1947 masterpiece’s most oft-cited characteristic, and to its onetime selling point. In fact, the reduction of Black Narcissus by admirers and detractors (and cocreators!) alike to the three Es—expressionist, exotic (or, to get fancy about it, “exoticist”), and erotic—has often deprived this bracing film of its many nuances and complexities. It’s as if Jean Simmons’s seductive urchin and Kathleen Byron’s wanton Sister Ruth were the whole show. I don’t mean to imply that eroticism plays a less than crucial role—eroticism of place, of visual texture, and, most assuredly, of the flesh. But the film is also engaged with larger and more mysterious phenomena, which finally overshadow erotic desire. With great force, Black Narcissus addresses an enduring misconception: the longing, indeed fervent, belief that reality can be reconfigured to conform to an ideal image. Sister Clodagh and her charges at St. Faith are confident that they can keep the past (their pasts and the past of their new dwelling, a former brothel) from intruding on the present, but they cannot. The giddily bedeviled Sister Ruth wishes to be neither an underling nor seriously disturbed, but she is both. Sister Honey denies that one of the local babies is mortally ill and that his death is inevitable. And none of the sisters want to recognize the powerfully disorienting effects of the vertiginous depths immediately beyond their mountain convent, or the pure, clean air endlessly gusting through their habits, or the vast, shimmering distance stretching out to the great Himalayan peaks.

Black Narcissus is a film about people who try and fail to remake the world to their specifications, and it was paradoxically made by people who control every square inch of the environment being represented—every sliver of light, every quavering breeze—in order to render its effect on frozen consciousness as vividly and dramatically as possible. Powell and Emeric Pressburger had pulled off a similar task in an earlier, black-and-white film, made in an altogether different key. I Know Where I’m Going! is the story of one woman who also believes that she can remain unaffected by her surroundings, only to see her plans undone by the weather, the pace and customs of life in the Hebrides, and prolonged exposure to a charming man. Wendy Hiller’s Joan consciously projects her fantasy of a perfect future of material comforts onto the island across the bay, as close as Gatsby’s green light and just as unattainable. In contrast, the sisters in Black Narcissus are taken aback to find their buried memories and unfulfilled yearnings spontaneously conjured to life as they contemplate the apparently limitless horizon. “I think you can see too far,” observes Sister Philippa (Flora Robson, who gives the film’s most delicate and underrated performance), by way of explaining the sudden intrusion of past experiences into her heretofore perfect spiritual life. In both films, a love story develops against the will of a determined woman—I Know Where I’m Going! ends with a long-postponed and eminently satisfying kiss, but in Black Narcissus, the growing affection and understanding between David Farrar’s Mr. Dean and Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, both fixed in their solitude, remain unremarked and unfulfilled, a matter of quick glances, sympathetic exchanges, and poignantly masked surges of feeling.

Powell set interesting challenges for himself on both projects, as if on an unspoken dare. With the earlier film, he had to contend with a star who was unable to travel to the Hebrides, necessitating a great deal of ingenious matching between studio work and location footage shot with a double. With Black Narcissus, much to the surprise of his creative team, the director felt that the film had to be made under controlled conditions. The decisions to create the General’s Palace of Mopu in a subtropical garden in Horsham and on sets at Pinewood, and to cast May Hallatt, Esmond Knight, and Jean Simmons as Indians, seem to place the film squarely in an earlier and less culturally attuned era. However, one could argue that Powell took such a course of action precisely because he wanted to stay (relatively) true to the culture of northern India, as well as to the dramatic structure of Rumer Godden’s novel, albeit within the confines of the glorious artifice that was already an Archers trademark (the filmmakers’ commitment to artifice did not endear them to Godden, who declared after seeing Black Narcissus: “I have taken a vow never to allow a book of mine to be made into a film again”). “I have an anxiety, amounting to morbidity, not to have any serious howler in any film of mine which deals with a technical subject,” Powell wrote in his book on the shooting of The Edge of the World, and the sentiment applies to virtually every aspect of his cinema. “The atmosphere in this film is everything, and we must create and control it from the start,” he said at the first production meeting for Black Narcissus. “Wind, the altitude, the beauty of the setting—it must all be under our control. If we went to India and shot a lot of exteriors, according to the usual plan, and then came back to Pinewood and then tried to match them here, you would have two different kinds of color and two kinds of style.” Not to mention the logistical and economic nightmares of transporting Technicolor equipment and stock to and from India. Film history is riddled with examples of the kind of makeshift visual scheme Powell wanted to avoid (The African Queen, also shot by Jack Cardiff, comes immediately to mind), in addition to productions like Thorold Dickinson’s Men of Two Worlds and Nick Ray’s The Savage Innocents, during which costly location footage was ruined in transit. Powell’s seemingly eccentric strategy yielded singular results, and a finished film as far from a compromised hybrid or an indifferent studio re-creation as it was from certain roughly contemporary works, classified under neorealism, that were coming out of Italy.

It was only four years later when Jean Renoir shot the first Technicolor film made wholly in India, The River, adapted from another Rumer Godden novel about characters who are forced to accept unwelcome realities. (Godden herself loved the Renoir film, which she worked closely on, as much as she despised Black Narcissus.) But these are very different works made by very different artists. Where the Renoir film has an extremely loose narrative that emphasizes a broad continuum of existence, the Powell and Pressburger film is very tightly structured (much more tightly than the novel), with a beginning, middle, and end point, “when the rains break.” In the Renoir film, the setting—the banks of the Ganges, on the Bay of Bengal—determines the rhythm of the film. In the Powell and Pressburger, which takes place in landlocked northern India, near Darjeeling, the drama is set in motion by the Western characters’ violent reaction to an unfamiliar Eastern setting. Where the people in The River arrive at peaceful acceptance, the sisters in Black Narcissus are left with their illusions of perfect spiritual order shattered. The River is about the flow of life, while Black Narcissus is about the convulsive effect of life on closed minds, a drama of fugitive glances and grimaces and fixations, of gusts of wind and swaths of color and light, advancing in vivid and at times hair-raisingly precise emotional increments, each one as richly abundant and visually satisfying as the last.

Like all of the Archers’ best films, Black Narcissus is an enchant­ment, an immersion in the sheer pleasure of artifice and the play of creation. The casting of Hallatt, Knight, and Simmons, for instance, contributes to this aura of make-believe, as does the visual excitement of the sisters’ faces illuminated by the light reflected from their habits, or, on a broader level, the orchestration of color, light, and motion into a slowly building symphony of reds, blues, deep greens, and blinding whites (Cardiff may have patterned his lighting after Vermeer, but the breathlessly dynamic pace of the images leaves an altogether different, more unsettled impression in the mind). And the spectacle of Powell and cameraman Cardiff weaving a geographical whole out of the gardens at Horsham, Alfred Junge’s elaborate set, and matte paintings of the Himalayas is thrilling in and of itself—like Méliès, Powell had a magician’s knowledge that it was all a matter of timing.

Of course, the visual richness of the Powell and Pressburger films has been often and justifiably noted, but I don’t think that enough has been said about their emotional and psychological rigor. Contained within their storybook worlds is a fascination with human drives and impulses. “The film is truer and tougher than many of the exotic romantic poems that have an honored place in anthologies of English literature,” wrote Raymond Durgnat, who saw past the hypnotic surfaces of Black Narcissus to its dramatic spine of steel. If this were merely a well-made movie about a group of nuns brought face-to-face with their repressed sexual urges, it would indeed be nothing more than a “dramatic exploitation of celibacy as an opportunity for titillation in the best of taste,” as James Agee put it in his dismissive contemporary review. It is always tempting to uncouple the unearthly visual beauty and formal control of a Powell and Pressburger film from its psychological exactitude—and that urge is built into the films themselves. The characters (and the audience) are always on the brink of being overwhelmed by beauty, the beauty of the world on the one hand and of art on the other, which holds the impossible but ever present promise of a permanently heightened state. At the same time, however, the action is always firmly anchored in the fallacies and disturbances and longings of being human. We get the lure of beauty and its potentially dangerous effect at the same time. For instance, Powell’s remarkable precision with distances and angles of perception is as elegant and ingenious here as it is in all his great work, particularly the continued refrain of looking down—Kerr’s Sister Clodagh surveying the sisters gathered at the dinner table or, in a reverie, fixating on her grandmother’s footstool back in Ireland; Sabu’s Young General gazing down at Simmons’s Kanchi; Byron’s Sister Ruth spying from a series of heights within the open corridors of the newly christened convent on Sister Clodagh and her interactions with Mr. Dean; each of the sisters in turn contemplating the distant valley below. This insistence on up-down relationships (a constant in Powell’s work) gives the film a musical development akin to a slowly evolving theme or pattern and results in “mental images” as lasting as Hitchcock’s point-of-view shots. The moment when the screen goes red, as Sister Ruth passes out, is a startling reiteration of a powerful visual idea, but it may also be a representation of a genuine neurological phenomenon known as a “redout,” as Diane Broadbent Friedman postulates in her fascinating book on A Matter of Life and Death and its prob­able origins in real neuroscience.

The performances and creative employments of the actors’ physiques are no less acutely double-edged. It’s a safe bet that the image of Sister Ruth with blood streaked on her off-white robe or emerging from the darkness in her scarlet dress at the sound of the morning bell, her face as hollowed and haunted as Max Schreck’s in Nosferatu, her body as sharp as an ax, will stay fixed in the minds of all but the most unsympathetic viewers (the blood on the robe and the red dress are Powell and Pressburger inventions, nowhere to be found in Godden’s novel). But she would be just another weapon in the standard gothic arsenal if not for the refinement of the characterization: Byron makes her a strangely touching figure, a model of dangerous self-importance who breaks into a terrifying smile whenever she sees an opportunity to satisfy her craving for praise and affection. Robson’s Sister Philippa, whose thinking becomes so crowded out by reemerging memories that she plants flowers in the designated vegetable garden, is less visually spectacular (who isn’t?) but no less compelling, a worn, plain-faced woman with beautifully weathered eyes who observes the changes in herself and is dismayed by what she sees—in a moving encounter with Sister Clodagh, she asks in a trembling voice to be punished in order to regain her lightness of spirit. Sister Philippa is haunted by her loss of joy, as if it had been snatched away by the devil. Jenny Laird’s apple-cheeked, open-faced Sister Honey is extravagantly sympathetic, in apparent competition with everyone in sight for Best Human Being, and Powell makes good use of her childish face (Laird seems to have retained her baby fat) and crinkling, overemotive eyes and mouth. Judith Furse’s Briony is the most grounded of the sisters, and a perfect visual counterpoint to Byron. In his autobiography, Powell refers to Furse’s “monstrous shape and towering authority,” and her deep voice is no less impressive, but what makes her character interesting is her need to remind everyone in the immediate vicinity of her authority and capability. They each have their fallacies and vanities, pitilessly exposed in the wind, air, and light—there’s not a generic “nun” in the bunch.

As for Sister Clodagh, she seems bound for a violent transformation after the film ends. In a good, pointed interaction near the beginning, Nancy Roberts’s Mother Dorothea counsels her to spare Sister Ruth some of her own “importance.” It’s a striking exchange in close-up, emphasizing the stark contrast between Kerr’s taut, freckled skin and delicately set features and Roberts’s aged, narrowing eyes and pursed lips. Clodagh is a stunning redhead from a wealthy Irish family, with a great consciousness of her own beauty. When she is told that she will be the youngest Sister Superior in her order, a smile of recognition passes across her determined face, as if to say: Wasn’t it inevitable? There’s an aura of entitlement to Clodagh, ably embodied by a young actress in the first flush of success, and it raises the specter of class, ever present and never less than interestingly refracted in Powell and Pressburger. The great erotic touchstones of the film—Simmons’s spontaneous dance, her entwinement with Sabu, Byron furtively kissing Farrar’s hand, her first appearance in the red dress—remain as potent as ever. Yet on reviewing, I find that the most arresting moments involve the highborn Clodagh and the evidently lowborn Mr. Dean. When Kerr publicly admonishes Farrar for attending the Christmas Eve service at the palace in a drunken state, the close image of his ruddy face is unforgettable. Farrar was adept at states of vulnerability and hurt (he would later forge one of the great male characters in British cinema in Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room, another story with a protagonist trying to deny his own reality, and a runner-up for Michael Powell’s most erotic film). He looks through Clodagh’s tirade to her passionate longing with a heavy-lidded half smile, at once self-chastening and undeniably knowing: he’s looking past her words as well as her robes.

Earlier in the film, there’s a remarkable vision of a glorious day in Ireland: “Isn’t it a grand day, Con?” exclaims a younger Clodagh to her churlish, pinched lover (Shaun Noble). He’s too consumed with envy of his brother in America to see the sun sparkling on the water, the green hills in the distance under the fresh blue sky. As Clodagh stands in the lake casting her line, deep in the throes of her love affair, she seems to own the world, resplendently, shiningly new and ready for ravishment. It’s a brief moment, and it delivers her entire history in an instant: we understand immediately that one day she will return to beauty’s embrace. A signature image for the Archers, I think. Small wonder that in 1947 it was cut by American censors.

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