Blog Directory CineVerse: Examining a dark flower of a film one petal at a time

Examining a dark flower of a film one petal at a time

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The inventive team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a string of memorable films in the UK, especially in the 1940s. One great example is Black Narcissus, which boasts an intense chromatic palette and absorbing screenplay that rewards viewers all these years later. Our CineVerse group put the magnifying glass to this movie last week and posited many opinions and insights, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How is Black Narcissus different, unexpected, surprising, or memorable?

  • The movie serves up a sumptuous visual feast and satiates the senses thanks to the dazzling technicolor cinematography – groundbreaking in its day – its elaborate art design, and its attempt to re-create an exotic foreign locale, even though this was filmed in the contrived and carefully controlled settings of a film studio in Britain, not on location in India. The cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, won an Oscar for his work on this production.
  • This would have been a daring and groundbreaking picture for 1947 for a few reasons:
    • Because of its erotic and sensual undertones, as evidenced by the seductive looks and body movements of Sister Ruth and Kanchi, in particular.
    • It was groundbreaking for a 1947 color film to show a character stained with bright red blood; even mainstream horror movies didn’t attempt to do this until the late 1950s.
    • We get a moment of subjective camera, in which Sister Ruth sees red, as we do, and faints, as the image fades to blue.
  • The artificiality of the production can either be a hindrance or an asset to the movie. Consider the aesthetically impressive matte paintings that can’t possibly do justice to the majesty of the Himalayas, and the British actors cast in native Indian roles. The fact that it is such an obviously fabricated world meant to mimic the real India lends credence to one of the movie’s key themes: that of trying to remake a wild and untamed world to fit your sensibilities and illusions.
  • Interestingly, the Catholic National Legion of Decency banned the film in America as an “affront to religion and religious life” and because it attempted to depict “an escape for the abnormal, the neurotic, and the frustrated.”
  • This movie made a huge impression on Martin Scorsese, who used some of the framing techniques in his The Color of Money; additionally, the visual design and imagery of the Disney movie Frozen was inspired by Black Narcissus.

Major themes

  • The folly of trying to make reality fit to an idealized image, and the hubris of trying to customize the world to your own conditions and design. The British have imposed themselves upon a foreign and exotic land that they can’t possibly control. Ultimately, they are forced to abandon the environment and allow its native peoples and culture to exist organically.
    • Criterion Collection essayist Kent Jones wrote: “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… 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.”
  • The death of an empire and the end of colonialism. This story was seen as a parable or allegory for the end of the British Empire, which retreated from India after the country earned its independence from Britain in 1947. Film critic Dave Kehr wrote that the final sequence in which the nuns withdraw from the mountain is not an image of defeat “but of a respectful, rational retreat from something that England never owned nor understood.”
  • The inescapable and overwhelming power of nature unrestrained and its ability to sway your decision-making and pragmatic judgment.
  • The dangers of repressed desire. Sister Ruth grows increasingly unhinged out of jealousy and suppressed sexuality.
  • The title itself, Black Narcissus, which refers to a famous perfume of the day, conjures us potent imagery, making us think of the words “narcissism,” “black,” and “dark,” beautiful flowers/plants, and the figure from Greek mythology known for his beauty.

Similar works

  • The River
  • Lost Horizon
  • Body & Soul
  • The Nun (1966)
  • Novitiate
  • Lilies of the Field
  • The Mission
  • Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Other films by Powell and Pressburger

  • The Red Shoes
  • The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
  • Tales of Hoffman
  • A Matter of Life and Death
  • I Know Where I’m Going!

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