High above the world nestled on an impossible cliff, madness comes to Mopu. Once a harem, this decayed palace of pleasures and perversities bears witness to new masters: a group of Anglican nuns who seek to establish a school and hospital. But the air is too clear, the wind too strong, and the world beyond the palace too empty. The sight of the surrounding Himalayas is a harsh mirror which lays bare all of their memories and weaknesses. One by one they will lose themselves to the mountains. One by one they will be swallowed by the pitiless Unknown.
It is this struggle with the Unknown that propels Black Narcissus (1947) from the realm of romantic melodrama to psychological masterpiece. Condemned by the Catholic Church yet lauded by audiences and critics as a triumph, the film saw three of the true titans of British filmmaking at the height of their creative powers. Director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger had already established themselves as two of Europe’s most prominent filmmakers, having made many of Britain’s best films of the 1940s including the wartime thriller 49th Parallel (1941), the humanist epic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and the romantic fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (1946). But Black Narcissus proved to be a new challenge. Determined to avoid the pitfalls of matching on-location filming with studio footage, Powell made the bold decision to shoot the entire film in England. Tasked with literally recreating the Himalayas in a studio back-lot, they relied heavily on scale models, matte and glass paintings, and clever process shots. Their recreation was so convincing that they actually received letters from people in India who claimed to recognize their shooting locations.
But the other genius of Black Narcissus was cinematographer Jack Cardiff whose Technicolor work on the film would become the stuff of industry legend (as well as an Academy Award for Best Cinematography). In the 1940s Technicolor was almost exclusively used for musicals and “big outdoor pictures.” Black Narcissus was neither. The film was a hybrid of exotic fantasy and psychological melodrama. Cardiff borrowed from Vermeer and Rembrandt for his lighting compositions and Vincent van Gogh for his use of colors during scenes of heightened emotions. Notice how the stark blacks and whites of the Sisters’ habits stand in defiance to the bright outfits of the pagan villagers and the watercolored mountainside. The color red in particular symbolizes all that is repressed and passionate. During flashbacks to her life before becoming a nun, Sister Superior Clodagh’s (Deborah Kerr) fierce mane of red hair sparkles in the sunlight of the Irish countryside. And when one of the other nuns finally succumbs to murderous madness, the sudden revelation of a red dress and lipstick trumpets the escape of unbridled eroticism.
There is much to be said about the erotic element of Black Narcissus. Powell considered it the most erotic film he ever made, a sentiment reflected by his long-time friend and disciple Martin Scorsese. But the film’s eroticism is subtle and refined, not overt and flashy. Powell once reflected, “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image from beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts.” Take, for example, the great destabilizing factor in Sister Clodagh’s life: a local British agent named Mr. Dean (David Farrar). His cynical smile, barely concealed contempt for the Church, and large collection of shorts which expire long before his knees torment the Sisters to no end. If the Sisters represent the cloistered world defiantly attempting to breach the Unknown, Mr. Dean represents complete surrender to it. In him, Sister Clodagh perhaps sees a reflection of the man she loved whose loss propelled her to take the Vows.
But to dismiss the film as singularly erotic would be to miss its larger message. Black Narcissus was based on a novel by Rumer Godden, an author who frequently set her works in India and was consumed by the idea of the [im]possibility of reconciling Western culture with a world they claimed by conquest but failed to ever truly understand. While two of the most important character arcs in Black Narcissus involve the nuns who are sexually tempted by Mr. Dean, the heart of the film can be found in two other ones. The first is the jubilant Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) whose unbridled enthusiasm and joy becomes the soul of the new school. By the end she is reduced to hysterics when her God and Western medicine fail to save the life of a sick baby.
The other is the elderly Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) who was sent to Mopu for her gardening expertise. From sun-up to sun-down she plows and gardens until her hands are literally covered with thick blisters. But in the emptiness of the mountains she becomes overwhelmed by repressed memories. Much too late it is discovered that she has planted flowers instead of desperately needed vegetables in the palace’s gardens. Earlier in the film, she had confessed her misgivings to Sister Clodagh.
Sister Philippa: “I remember things before I joined our Order. Things I wanted to forget. I never thought of them until now. I’ve been 21 years in the Order and now they come back to me. I think you can see too far. I look out there and…then I can’t see the potato I’m planting. And after a bit it doesn’t seem to matter whether I plant it or not.”
Sister Clodagh: “It’s this place with its strange atmosphere and new people. Stay with me tonight after chapel and we will pray together. And work, Sister, work hard. Work until you’re too tired to think of anything else.”
And work she does. But still the vibrant flowers come.