Black Narcissus (1947). 100 minutes. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Deborah Kerr (as Sister Clodagh), Sabu (as the young general), David Farrar (as Mr. Dean), Kathleen Byron (as Sister Ruth), Flora Robson (as Sister Philippa), Jenny Laird (as Sister Honey), Judith Firse (as Sister Briony), Esmond Knight (as the old general), Jean Simmons (as Kanchi), and May Hallatt (as Angu Ayah).
Black Narcissus is a film of astonishing beauty. I liked it even more than I did The Red Shoes (1948), which was also created by The Archers, the production duo consisting of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Both films tell their stories, which are more than tinged with melodrama, in beautiful three-strip Technicolor. But whereas The Red Shoes tells a story about creative passion that its characters express nightly as members of a ballet company, Black Narcissus documents the development of smoldering erotic passion among a group of Roman-Catholic nuns living in a palace atop the Himalayas. Much of what they experience is never expressed in words, but most of it is formulated in terms of carefully structured images that include billowing curtains, flowing robes, and the parched white stone of the abandoned palace that they inhabit in the mountains. It is one of the most provocative expressions of the natural tendency for all humans to experience desire that I have seen in a Golden Age film.
The story follows a small group of English Catholic nuns living in Calcutta who are invited by an Indian general to found a nunnery in the abandoned palace of Mopu, near Darjeeling in the Himalayas; the palace was formerly a seraglio for the old general’s consorts. The nuns’ local contact, an Englishman named Mr. Dean, helps them to settle in, but relations between Sister Clodagh (the young Mother Superior) and him are strained and tense. The sisters attempt to start a school and open an infirmary to help the locals, but soon all of them find themselves distracted. Sister Philippa, who maintains the garden, plants beautiful flowers instead of vegetables, and Sister Ruth falls in love with Mr. Dean, as does Sister Clodagh. Soon Sister Ruth declares that she is leaving the order. She runs off to Mr. Dean, who insists that she go back to the nunnery, but after her return she attempts to kill Sister Clodagh. Ruth dies instead, and the movie concludes with the nuns retreating from the palace forever.
Amazingly, the stunning location of Black Narcissus—the aged palace perched high atop the Himalayas—was manufactured at Pinewood Studios in England with elaborate backdrops to create the illusion of dramatic heights; and yet the look of Mopu is completely authentic. Black Narcissus is one of those special movies about a location that comes to feel like a character in its own right. An early sequence where Aya the caretaker scuttles through the palace as the curtains blow demonstrates what we might call the palace’s personality. She passes through chambers with disintegrating murals of nude women, stops at a tiled pool of water, and plays with a metal cup that sits on its edge. Aya moves as if performing a dance, with small steps, round hand movements, and playful gestures. The place is a source of great pleasure for her; when the old general announces that the English nuns are moving in, she is disappointed—no fun, she observes. But although the palace space will be repurposed, Mopu’s old persona will persist. The spirits of the former inhabitants still radiate from the paintings, the pool, and the curtains that palpitate as if breathed upon by some unseen force.
That the palace is a repository of good times and those good times grew out of the women who have lived there suggests that the nuns are coming into a location that has the potential to serve as a positive place for generalized female activity that the nuns may participate in—even though they reside at the opposite end of the sexual spectrum from the Mopu courtesans. But the nuns have a great deal working against them and make themselves incongruous with the space in a multitude of ways. Part of this has to do with their physical appearance. Their habits consist of yards and yards of bleached white muslin that conceal their figures, with extreme headdresses and fabric that wraps around their hair and the sides of their faces. They look out of place and otherworldly in this wind-blown edifice on the edge of a mountain.
Their extreme costumes work to further the aims of the story. Symbolically, the habits both convey the sisters’ nearness to the spirit of Mopu and pull them away from it, creating a dramatic tension that the movie toys with up until its conclusion. The sight of the sisters ringing the convent bell perched atop a sheer cliff suggests that their drastic mode of dress shares something in common with their extreme environment. Perhaps, we might think, they are not so mismatched with the former palace of courtesans, perhaps they will adapt to this new life after all. On another level, however, the cliffs appear to be so natural and free, whereas the sisters seem so covered and enclosed. In this regard, they are defeated before they have even taken up residence there. And yet these costumes, while they offer a great deal in terms of symbolism and tension, simultaneously also help the camera to draw attention to the nuns’ psychology. While the clothing mutes most of the nuns’ bodies, ironically it activates their expressions and words, sharpening our perception of them and their mental and verbal activity. As the camera lingers with intense focus on their faces, the sisters’ thoughts and intentions take on more importance, even as they become more inscrutable, even as the women grow lost in private turmoil.
And there is turmoil aplenty. Just as the mountain winds blow from palace chamber to palace chamber, there is the suggestion that the worldly vibes of former times are passing through the environs as well. Nearly all of the sisters succumb to what they perceive to be the latent eroticism of the palace. Sister Philippa plants English flowers known for their beauty and color rather than the practical onions, potatoes, and string beans she had initially planned. Sister Clodagh increasingly relives her past romantic failure the closer she grows to the bare-chested Mr. Dean. And Sister Ruth transforms into her non-habit-wearing self as she prepares to leave the order and run into the arms of the same man. We watch as she, in a red form-fitting dress, applies electric-colored lipstick across from a stunned Sister Clodagh.
The inherent passion at Mopu may seem inescapable. The young general and the peasant girl Kanchi, who are both ornamented with jewelry and brightly clothed, fall in love during their schooling at the hands of the sisters. Yet we might also notice that the palace does not necessarily have this effect on other people, such as the numerous youths who attend the nuns’ school, or the locals who come there for medical treatment. Most of the Indians themselves, in other words, do not seem subject to the passionate currents of the palace. While it is true that we can perceive the latent mystery and sensuality of Mopu, perhaps the nuns’ belief that something almost supernaturally erotic is acting upon them in this place has more to do with their private psychologies than with the experiences of the majority of Indians who live nearby.
The English attitude towards their host culture is lamentable. To them, the locals are ignorant, smelly. Sister Honey calls the young general “Black Narcissus” because she learns that is the name of the perfume he orders from London, which she thinks is appropriate: to her he is black and a narcissist, just another sensual Indian. But the young general is more than that. Curious, eager, and ambitious, he comes to the school to learn and advance himself even though he is older and wealthier than his classmates. He is not the only local who challenges the sisters. There is also the Indian holy man who sits meditating on the rocks that surround the palace property. He is another native character who perturbs the sisters with his (to them) unreasonable expectations. The result is that the nuns seem irritable and intolerant.
The greatest human challenger to the sisters’ sojourn at the top of the mountain, however, has to be Mr. Dean for whom India is an adopted home. He goes through the movie flashing flesh and hair, usually wearing shorts and a low-cut, short-sleeved shirt. As an outsider who has nevertheless “gone native,” Mr. Dean goes over the top in adopting a style of dress that offends conservative English sensibilities. Yet it is important to note that compared to the Indian generals and school and clinic attendees, Mr. Dean might as well be nude. In other words, his version of nativism is fairly unique within the purview of Black Narcisssus.
Mr. Dean is everything Sister Clodagh fears—a romantically available English male with a frank sexuality, someone who placidly accepts non-rigid living. In the end, they part as friends, but not before the two demean and reject each other, each hostile to the other’s guiding tenets. That tension creates an underlying eroticism that is as powerful as Sister Ruth’s impassioned looks. The fact that the most that ever transpires physically between Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh is a handshake speaks to the powerful way Black Narcisssus develops its sexual charge through visual cues and the unspoken rather than through more explicit contact.
At the movie’s conclusion, when the nuns retreat from the palace and file back down the mountain, riding side saddle in their enormous habits with the rain beginning to pour down, we sense the end of an era that began to collapse before they arrived. The old India embodied by the palace already appeared to be disintegrating at the beginning of the story—its paintings fading, its plumbing broken. With the evacuation at the end, Sister Clodagh’s religious order is also defeated, eroded. But there is also the sense, as suggested by Dave Kehr, that the empire they are a part of is crumbling as well. The British would grant India independence in the same year Black Narcissus was released. In other words, there are many endings in the movie’s conclusion, and an overwhelming feeling that life as the characters know it is at an end. It is not clear how they will survive—by continuing to smother themselves or by opening themselves up? By learning something from their encounters or burying themselves deeper in their psychologies? As the rain comes down on the vibrant green path that the nuns are making their way down, the beauty of the environment threatens to wash away in the storm. As the rain intensifies, our view is obscured. Nature has won. And it finally impinges on even the audience’s ability to see clearly.