When I chose Black Narcissus as my next Old Movies/Young Eyes review, I was curious if it would live up to all the hype I read about it online. The plot is very straightforward, and the film is saturated with amazing imagery, tests of faith, and sexuality. What else does one need when deciding to watch a film? I soon found there is much more to be discovered in Black Narcissus. First, a brief plot summary and then a few random thoughts I had after watching the movie.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is a young nun that is chosen to be the Sister Superior and lead a mission at a new convent located in the Himalayas. Her age and inexperience is important in the fact that she is trusted with this mission, and the Mother Superior is not shy about voicing her doubt in Sister Clodagh. The convent is located in an abandoned palace on a cliff high above a small village nestled in a valley of the mountains. Sister Clodagh and a handful of other nuns plan to create a school and hospital with hopes of “civilizing” the natives. Clashing cultures and religious differences between the nuns and the natives are brought to light early in the film. The native Holy Man sits day and night in solitude and contemplation; the sisters work as a team to bring their mission to life. When warned by Mr. Dean (David Farrar) that the convent will only last “until the rains break,” Sister Clodagh is determined to prove him wrong. However, the environment, elements and her own past begin to tear away at her faith in the convent and herself. The constant whipping wind at the palace quickly takes on a character of its own and soon everyone finds themselves at the mercy of something ominous in the atmosphere.
Mr. Dean is a tall, lean and handsome British agent that takes pleasure in provoking the sisters with teasing and snarky comments. Of course the nuns are thrown a curveball by him and his seemingly oozing sensuality. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is particularly influenced by Mr. Dean and begins to obsess in her longing for him. The nuns begin to build a rapport with the natives, and Mr. Dean advises them to be cautious because the natives would blame them if anyone dies at the hospital while under their care. When a baby dies after being seen by the nuns, the natives avoid the school, hospital and the nuns. Sister Clodagh is left in a struggle to keep the convent together while reliving vivid memories of life and love before her religious calling. She confides in Mr. Dean, and Sister Ruth is literally fit to be tied from jealousy and temptation. Sister Clodagh confronts Sister Ruth and tells her she knows she has decided to leave the Order. Sister Ruth is in a sleek red dress, and emphatically applies bright red lipstick while Sister Clodagh reads from the Bible. This scene is amazingly erotic because Sister Ruth is eerily determined, and Sister Clodagh is calm while being appalled at her behavior. The story turns darker at this point when Sister Ruth confesses her love to Mr. Dean and is immediately rejected. She blacks out from rage and when she awakens she takes on the appearance of a scorn woman with a side of demonic possession. She returns to the seminary and a battle of good vs. evil ensues at the cliffs edge.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so there are holes here and there in my review. I also completely avoided the subplot of the young Indian general and the beautiful young Indian dancer. Really the only thing to be said about the subplot is that it injects another level of eroticism into the film. Sexuality is interwoven throughout and it’s not hard to understand how temptation and lust were driving forces behind Sister Ruth’s behavior. The shot of Sister Ruth in her red dress is striking: it is the first time we see a nun sans her religious habit, and the lipstick application is incredibly seductive in its statement. It was definitely a “fuck you” to Sister Clodagh and the Order in general, and I found myself rooting for Sister Ruth at this point in the film. Religion aside, the plot is a simple story of internal struggle and outward influence.
One of the reasons I chose to watch Black Narcissus was all the talk about the beautiful cinematography. It was filmed almost completely on a set, and uses incredible backdrop paintings of the mountains. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff won an Academy Award and also a Golden Globe for Best Cinematography in Black Narcissus. I can see why. The scenes are very vivid and over-saturated but it works well. Almost every shot looks like a picture. A light versus dark theme is subtle but riveting. The palace on the cliff is rundown but still stands solid against the backdrop of the mountains in the distance. Shot from above, looking down at the bell ringing high above the valley is breathtaking. Close up shots of the characters bring intimacy and focus on facial expressions sometimes says more than words. I am impressed at how well it all came together, especially considering that the filming location is mostly studio. The film is also widely known for its Technicolor. In keeping with my (damning) honesty in Old Movies/Young Eyes reviews, I should mention that when I hear the word “Technicolor” I immediately think of TWO things. First? The Wizard of Oz. Second? Blur The Technicolor by White Zombie—but that’s a whole different story. Obviously I’m not one with enough knowledge to cast judgment, so I cannot say I feel Black Narcissus’ use of Technicolor surpasses that of The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps they are equally profound, but I’ll leave that for someone else to argue one way or another.
A few random notes I made that are worth mentioning: The story is borderline offensive in the way it portrays the natives as ignorant and simple people. But then again it was released in 1947 and only months before Indian independence from Britain, so is it really that surprising? I found myself annoyed with the movie at times, but then something would happen to get me back on track. The use of humor is perfect and I admit, I found myself having a giggle or two at charming things that Mr. Dean says. Speaking of Mr. Dean, WHAT THE F was up with his short-shorts? I appreciate his manly appearance, chest hair and all (heyyyy), but the shorts were killin’ me softly. I was confused for a while and I felt like I was missing something because I had no clue why it was called Black Narcissus. One scene shows the women sniffing the air and smiling with delight, only to reveal the source of the scent is cologne from London called Black Narcissus and is being worn by the young Indian general. It really portrayed how senses influence desire and our pre-programmed reproductive instincts. Sister Ruth’s appearance when she went coo-coo-ca-chu towards the end of the film reminded me of the scene of the wife channeling the spirit of her dead husband in Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1955). Sister Ruth’s extremely pale, sickly face and empty eyes are a haunting and lasting image in Black Narcissus. I also think Sister Ruth’s character is more intriguing than Sister Clodagh. I understand Clodagh’s position in the film, but Ruth came out of no where and really took the film to the next level for me. I do not feel blown away by Black Narcissus in regards to plot and execution, but I do appreciate it for what it is. I am glad I chose to watch it.