Monday, 7 December 2015

Film Review: Black Narcissus (1947)

Fig 1: Poster for Black Narcissus displaying the cast and the mansion where the majority of the film takes place.

Black Narcissus is a 1947 film directed by Micheal Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It deals with female sexuality, and the struggle of censorship of sexual desire because of religious believes. A key factor of the film is the difference between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth as Clodagh keeps to her believes even tho the temptation of her past haunts her as she continues to live in the house, Ruth looks back on her pledge to God and becomes wrapped up in lust and sexual desire for the British Government Agent, Mr Dean."What better theatre in which to explore desire, hysteria, temptation and sexuality than a remote convent high up in the Indian Himalayas? And theatre this Michael Powell film most certainly is, as stressed by the gothic melodrama of the story and the acting, the studio setting with its beautiful backdrops and vivid colours and the most deliberate of characters and events."- (Dave Calhoun, Website,Timeout)
Depictions of Female sexuality is present through out the film, in the set design to the characters clothing and actions, men in the film are objectified or are used as a love device to spin of conflict between the more dominating presences of the female characters. The use of colour gives the viewer a visual cue of the distortion and corruption the Nuns, especially Sister Ruth, are experiencing as they continue their work in the used to be brothel they are working from. Colours slowly gain more hue and saturation as the film goes on, shadows get heavier and the cool tones of blue distort to a more vibrant reddish hue, as they abandon their Virgin Mary like status and fall deeper into a sexual lust. "Black Narcissus is a coldly intellectual morality drama tinged with a cynicism which has the effect of casting, as it were, a gratuitous reflection upon those who, regardless of sect, have forsaken worldly pleasures out of sheer religious devotion. This is so because the two dominant characters are basically frustrated women who seek solace in religion after unhappy romances." (Thomas M Pryer, Website, The New York Times)
Historically, 1947 was the year that India gained independence from Britain. The final scenes of the film could then be interpreted by British viewers, as the nuns leave the Himalayas as symbolism to the English leaving India and to their Empire. The film follows the book to a reasonable standard, though it does divulge at points, with a scene and a potential character cut out. Despite this, the english made film features only one Indian casted actor, as the Prince. The rest of the native characters are white actors and actresses in blackface.

Fig 2: Movie cap of the film displaying the use of matte painting to give a sense of how big the drop of the cliff is.
 The film centres around a group of nuns as they try to spread Christianity and the word of the Lord to a isolated civilisation in the Himalayas. They live in a what used to be brothel at the peak of the mountain over looking the people below, using a bell to signal the morning and the begins of lesson for the village girls and young children. The news of these lessons piqued the interest of the Prince of the village who asks Clodagh if he too could be taught due to his interest in education. Why there he meets a young girl who started to live with the nuns as a way to discipline her from her sexual ways, which ends up being ineffective as she falls for the prince's looks and starts to romance him.
As the film progresses, the influence the building's history has on the nuns starts to take it toll, not helped by Mr. Dean's flirtatious ways. Leading to the nuns questioning their faithfulness to the Lord, first through small things like growing flowers instead of vegetables to the deterioration of Sister Ruth who leaves the religious organisation, seductively puts on red lipstick and tight fitting clothes and goes off to find Mr Dean. She goes from the ex-brothel establishment down into the village and to the Dean's house, breaking in and attempting to force herself onto him before her vision goes a bright red and she collaspes. When she wakes up, she finds that she is back in the ex-Brothel. As Sister Clodagh rings the bells signalling the morning classes, Ruth pushes her of this cliff, but Clodagh is able to cling to the bell's rope. After a tousle Clodagh throws Ruth off of her, straight down the mountain leading to her untimely death. The Nuns decide to leave the manor, the tension they felt up there growing too strong with the death of Ruth being the final straw. The film ends with a panning out shot of the Sisters going back down the mountain, Sister Clodagh telling Mr. Dean to look after the gravesite for her.

Fig 3: Movie cap of Sister Ruth, the potential villain of the film as she snaps due to the sexual lust she has for Mr Dean.

While the film isn't that strong plot wise, it makes up for it in it's staging and set design. Made solely in the UK, through the use of miniatures and matte painting, Black Narcissus, is able to incapture the landscape of the Himalayas. The escalation of the colours used through out getting bolder and more noticeable as the Sisters continue their stay in the mansion. Starting with soft washed-out cold colours including a pastel blue room, the film progresses into a amber and red hue as the effect of the people and the surroundings start to take their hold on the Nuns. As the plot deepens so do the shadows, darkening the scenes and bringing out even more colour. This is especially present with Sister Ruth and the colour red. At the beginning of the film she stumbles into Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean, cover in bright blood and later on she puts on red lipstick as she drops her pledge to God and is absorbed by her lust for Mr Dean. "Without leaving England, Powell and Pressburger created a rapturous landscape whose colors seem to spill over onto the nuns’ off-white habits. This is a landmark of Hollywood-on-Thames trompe-l’oeil." (Michael Sragow, The New Yorker)


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Dave Calhoun-
Thomas M Pryer-
Micheal Sragow-

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