Just as the stoic, skeletal holy man both defies and presides over the feverishly ecclesiastical business of the Palace of Mopu as an intransigent, blood-locked ghost, Black Narcissus impishly keeps watch over the Archers’ canon with a sunken, rabidly prismatic eye. Now rather ironically viewed as perhaps the filmmakers’ most supernal visual achievement, Black Narcissus is nothing if not anomalous among the incomparable string of 1940s British masterpieces produced, written, and directed by collaborators Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The script was adapted from Rumer Godden’s ponderous, post-colonial allegory, rather than conceived in-house. The story teased and tempted Anglo nuns into a hornily unholy froth through the piercing clarity of the Himalayan elements and the ubiquity of Hindu fertility totems; regardless of the cosmic punishment eventually exacted for plummeting too far down the Great Chain of Sexual Being, the content’s untoward nature would have likely had the moralizing Glue Man of A Canterbury Tale breathily fidgeting with the control knob of his slide projector. And, rubbing angrily up against what was easily director Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s most sensitive, and most cerebral, photographic approach is an unprecedentedly curdled worldview, a visionary embrace of socio-cultural and interpersonal futility that one can’t quite take seriously without wincing—or succumbing to matte-induced vertigo.
The putative cynicism and psychological barbarism of Black Narcissus appears especially odd when considered as a follow-up to the superstitious, rural romance of I Know Where I’m Going! and the kaleidoscopic wartime mock-epic A Matter of Life and Death (where the “matter” is, naturally, of the grey persuasion). And yet the film’s cadence is unmistakably Archers-ian, perhaps by virtue of what juxtapositions with earlier works reveal: Never before had it been posited so smartly or artfully that gilded stairways to heaven are surrounded by cragged precipices to hell. And, true, the duo’s aesthetic success in the years leading up to 1947 often depended upon their tendency to transcend, and subtly detonate, the propagandist objectives of their studio-funded projects, but what fuels the trenchant poetry of Powell and Pressburger could never be mistaken for benign jingoism or high Tory tenderness—the political leanings of the auteurs notwithstanding. What defines the sometimes bleak, often nostalgic, but always elegant trajectory of the Archers’ cinematic arrow is a cleverly human understanding—one that forgives without forgetting, and that half-depicts, half-analyzes behavior as a schizoid depository for all the fears, hopes, and heartaches we’ve disappointedly gathered through day-to-day interactions.
The uncertain patience pulsing through the veins of newly appointed Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is the same that ran freely from Roger Livesey’s Clive Candy after his blimpishness had been gleefully poked full of holes; the mild undoing of both is a perspective molded by a paradise lost, unfulfilled promises of gentleness (from either wandering beaus or combat etiquette) that younger, shrewder, and more indulgent generations will never have the misfortune of getting worked up about. From the pensive solemnity of the Black Narcissus opening, wherein Clodagh receives her challenging assignment and a psychological profile of each troubled member of her habited entourage, Powell observes his pious protagonist as a deceptively staid enigma with plumb-worthy depths. And through an interspersed series of tightening medium wide-to-close shots that fill the frame ever more completely with beatified facial flesh (the only sisterly skin visible), he slowly chokes all the nuns who convene at Mopu on the monochrome of their own robes. (The faux-Freudian flashbacks to Clodagh’s courtship are less worthwhile, though they do reasonably explain why a woman with such a sexily symmetrical visage would resort to monastery vows.)
The configuration of personalities that comprise the makeshift convent are a near-comprehensive Chinese menu of womanly tropes, lending the bevy an ethereal, almost prototypical allure to match the primitive, hand-fashioned landscape that constricts and transforms them. The stately Clodagh is noble in the face of illogic; the wizened Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) intuits disaster and success; the diligent Sister Briony (Judith Furse) anchors both rotundly and sensibly; the gregarious Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) beams with feigned innocence and authentic effervescence; and the almost imperceptibly cracked Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) eventually smolders and shrieks from the instinctual pressure of it all. They are dispatched, ostensibly, to offer unsolicited implements of Western civilization to the poor and uneducated that cling to the Himalayan mountains like the alpine mist. Shacking up in an Indian general’s abandoned, palatial harem, they begin practicing medicine and teaching rudimentary English amidst scandalous, jeweled tapestries, murmurings of Catholic shamanism, and the supercilious eye-rolling of local British agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar).
The chiefly expository dialogue couldn’t be more at odds with the Pressburger-penned bon mots that maintained the double-time satirical rhythm of A Matter of Life and Death. But the simplicity of the storytelling enhances the building block mythos of the narrative—one could tag Black Narcissus as a man versus nature melodrama of errors steeped in repressed sexuality and call it a day—and provides room for the subtextual seepage of Powell and Cardiff’s azure-crimson color schemes and cognitively piquant film grammar. Powell icily builds tension with unmerciful scenarios, but his camerawork is some of the most empathic in cinema; his perspective-oriented angles and fluid, slight dollies evince a loyal concern for what and how his characters are thinking and feeling. When Clodagh carries a taper across her bedroom and slices the shivering grey-purple of early morning with a warm, honeyed aura, she looks like tentative salvation to us too; when children break down into weeping confessions Powell is sure to leave the frame and axis open for evidence of tear-wiping consolation.
The dance of tilts and cuts portraying the seduction of the township’s young general (Sabu, of The Thief of Baghdad fame) by the spangled, coquettish peasant girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons in ravishingly sable makeup) somehow allows us to observe the indigenous writhing from both her point of view and that of her yonic victim. (How else could she appear so distantly desirable and so flagrantly fatuous simultaneously?) The claustrophobic art direction by Alfred Junge similarly, though more violently, enforces the environment’s boundaries and brings the runaway bodily needs of the sisters into sharper focus. 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. Even the predatory, operatic staging of the film’s sweaty dawn climax, during which we even feel ourselves nervously yearning to do away with Sister Clodagh’s occasional self-righteousness, is more than the extra virgin art flourish it’s often appreciated as: This is mise-en-scène at its most pithily opulent.
But Powell’s goal throughout isn’t cautionary tale or Anglican commentary. Even Farrar’s readymade apogee of royal disenchantment Dean, for all his drunken, impotent blustering about emotional detachment, is by the denouement less a symbol than a perfectly carved curio of numb English apathy; he knows the limits of both national and sexual imperialism, and has passed the point of bothering with Orwellian, “To Shoot an Elephant”-style fables. And while his and Clodagh’s hairsbreadth of sensual magnetism bemoans the impotence of their personal sacrifices, the artificial altitude and angry-eyed, peaky-cheeked texture of the film’s finale amounts to a kind of tumescent martyrdom. With horn crescendos, meretricious rouge, and clanging iron Powell performs a hysterectomy on Mopu, and in the process effectively stifles Godden’s original thesis about the niceties of cross-cultural communication. The sisters’ self-imposed asceticism and devotion becomes, as with the ragged dancers of The Red Shoes, a Technicolor metaphor for the artist’s life; their Korda-backed cloisters are papier-mâché monuments to the multicolored cage of artistic vision. Powell was right when he called Black Narcissus an “erotic film,” but the attraction is pure Pygmalionism; the baroque Pinewood sets, the orchestra of lights, and the dexterous cast all lie prostrate before their director’s penetrating and life-bestowing lens.