Thursday, July 29, 2010

Black Narcissus

What is it about classical British directors and their upfront focus on sensuality? Chaplin may not have let his ephebophilic predilections spill over into his films, but he couldn't disguise his taste for nubile beauties. Hitchcock, well, I'm not even going to bother wasting the words talking about eroticism in Hitch's works. But there is a difference between eroticism and sensuality, and Michael Powell catered to the latter. Eroticism is naked, brazen, firing every nerve in every erogenous zone all at once. Sensuality has the same endpoint -- sexual overload -- but it goes about reaching this goal through subtler means. The word itself appeals to the senses, to light touches, faint whiffs, half-glimpses, aftertastes and tantalizing whispers. That is how Michael Powell makes his films: unhinged but refined, teasing every part of you until your barriers shut down and you achieve a purity of mental and spiritual orgasm.

None of this may be relevant to Black Narcissus, however, which Powell himself later called his "most erotic film." I contested that point several times during my viewing of Criterion's gorgeously restored Blu-Ray of the film, having just watched their print of The Red Shoes and finding the build-up of subjective artistic expression the most satisfying cinematic experience I can name, as I did the first time I watched that movie. Then I realized I'd forgotten my own annoyance with those who lump eroticism and sensuality together: The Red Shoes beckons and teases until you'll do anything for it, then it brutally denies you because it never gave itself the choice of pleasing an audience. But Black Narcissus has such a sexual primacy to it that every nude scene, hell, every visualized romantic moment, feels empty in comparison.

Made the same year that Britain gave India its independence, Black Narcissus partially demonstrates why British occupancy failed in the first place, but its approach is far from political. In fact, the central conflict of the film only tangentially concerns the indigenous population. The eroticism of the film plays on the exoticism of the environment, a beautiful area in the Indian Himalayas where a group of Anglican nuns come to establish a convent to teach local children and to set up a hospital.

Powell immediately emphasizes the tantalizing nature of the area. The nunnery, perched 9,000 feet up at the edge of a sheer cliff face, is constantly buffeted by gale-force winds that billow through the open windows. The wind casts everything not nailed down into disarray, but it also creates a sort of song as it howls through the corridors, a combination of forceful eroticism of its physical impact with the sensuality of its musical nature. Masters of color, Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who won the Oscar for his work here because it would simply be too much of an outrage if he hadn't), constantly contrast the brilliantly dyed clothes of the peasants with the off-white robes of the nuns' habits, colored as they are in pasty oatmeal hues. One of the biggest indicators of the underlying effect of the environment's sharp distinction from the plain nuns, and the funniest, is the casually mentioned line that the empty palace where the nuns make their home used to be the king's harem. Faded paintings of Karma Sutra positions dot the walls, not immediately noticeable but always there, a fitting recurring gag on the sexual confusion of these cloistered women.

For the point of Black Narcissus is not simply to emphasize the exotic qualities of a foreign locale but to demonstrate the perils of attempting to remake reality to fit an image. The nuns come to civilize the savages, but they find a generally happy, if superstitious, people who don't carry nearly the sexual baggage that the prim ladies do. Consider the difference between the two prominent males of the film: Dean (Jack Farrar), a government agent who embodies the British imperial attitude of pompous arrogance, often drunk, always clad in revealing shorts and condescending toward the locals. Then there's the young Indian general who arrives at the nunnery in respectable dress, innocently asking to be admitted to their school for girls. The nuns try to explain why it wouldn't do to have a striking young man in their midst, and he amusingly makes a case that they're being sexist by not allowing him to learn. Of the two, the simple Indian is far more gentlemanly and devoted to higher learning.

Yet his presence, and especially Dean's, put the nuns on edge, and we soon see that many may have come to escape their own sexuality. This is certainly true of Clodagh, the young sister superior played by Deborah Kerr, who routinely daydreams of a past lover in Scotland before she took her vows, and it's easy to see why one scene was cut for the American release to appease Catholics. Despite the lack of overt sexual content, it's impossible not to see erotic energy crackling off the screen as Kerr relaxes in a lake, casting a fishing rod as the crystal-clear water reflects the sunlight all around her as if the entire environment matched her post-coital glow. Whatever went wrong with that relationship, however, drives Clodagh to take to her new role with authoritative tasking. The other women also carry their latent desires, such as Sister Philippa, who becomes so intoxicated with the surroundings and the feelings they unlock in her that she inadvertently plants flowers in the vegetable garden, denying the convent much-needed food.

The people of India may be a great deal more formal than the nuns would have guessed, but they, along with their environment, surround the Brides of Christ with pure, vibrant expressions of dormant sensuality, and the Westernization does not tame them so much as infect everything British with the same passion. The children learn English words by looking at a tapestry with drawings of various Western weaponry, which takes on an even greater phallic significance when each killing device is said aloud by kids with no concept of their destructive power. Even the film's construction mashes up British sensibilities with these unfiltered emotions: not one frame of the film was shot in India, a fact Martin Scorsese relates in the DVD commentary with the breathless excitement of a teenager who wants to show his friends something cool he just found instead of the analytical mind of a man who's dissected this film for 40 years and filled his own work with references to it. But it's not hard to understand the director's enthusiasm, as Powell's film feels too alive to be the product of matte paintings, miniatures and studio sets. Yet the truth makes more sense, as the totality of the film's construction allows Powell to maintain total control of color and lighting, able to always create a shot that will yield maximum sumptuousness. Even the casting of Jean Simmons as the tawdry dancing girl works from this viewpoint; I do not mean to excuse the racism of the casting, but Simmons, painted bronze with a nose ring and flowers in her hair, becomes a vision of the ultimate effect of Powell's manufactured Himalayas on those who seek to remake it: the environment absorbs the British, not the other way around. Thus, Simmons' role as seductress takes on a deeper meaning that exacerbates her pull, and when she spontaneously bursts into an erotic dance while cleaning the convent, you wonder why she hadn't already. Even the general, so eager for a Western education, contributes to this effect, purchasing the titular Black Narcissus, a cheap, pungent perfume from England that smells foreign to the nuns by virtue of him wearing it.

Surprisingly, it is Sister Ruth, not Sister Clodagh, who ultimately cracks under the strain of all this thick tension. Where Clodagh came to India to escape memories of tragic romance, Ruth's past is murkier. Her behavior suggests sexual confusion, and perhaps she wished to escape her feelings of insecurity, only to be met by Clodagh. Why she should be so jealous, however, is a bit of a mystery, as she is played by Kathleen Byron and thus, in this writer's opinion, unnecessarily uncomfortable with her looks. (It's an opinion almost certainly shared by the director, whose dalliance with the actress led to her divorce.) But her madness is evident even in the film's early moments, such as the odd look of delight when she interrupts Dean and Clodagh's first meeting with red all over robes gushing over seeing the patient whose blood smears her habit. When Clodagh notices Ruth's desire for Dean, she attempts to calm the nun, only for Byron to leap in a flash and accuse her of wooing the man.

Byron would later attribute much of her performance to the film's lighting, which certainly ranks among the most memorable use of darkness in classic film; there is a clarity to shots with just enough lighting for outlines that it's as hard to believe that 1940s film stock could capture images at such low levels as it is to think that three-strip Technicolor could result in such a bountiful array of colors. But Byron's quote is little more than English modesty: encouraged by Powell to let loose and leave subtlety to some other film, she turns into a silent film monster to rival Max Shreck's Nosferatu, wild-eyed and flashing teeth like knives. Her performance, as with the direction, is passionate but excessively formal above all, modulated through the deliberate pacing of tension until, when Powell frames Byron in close-up as she applies blood-red lipstick, the distinction between Powell's driving direction and Byron's performance vanish, and the combined moment signals that Ruth has forsaken her vows and gone off the deep end before her true freak-out.

To beat a dead horse further, just look at the color in this film. This is not even my first experience with Black Narcissus, and yet I am still as overwhelmed by it. Cleaned up by Criterion and ITV, the new Blu-Ray erases the blurring and fading that marred the original DVD and restores the color to its fullest glory. Watch Clodagh as she prays in a drab room in the palace, only to look up and see the most beautiful blue sky you've ever seen in a high window, with just a hint of sparkling green foliage snaking across the bottom corner; the glimpse sparks one of her romantic memories, but the astonishing contrast of the white walls with the close-up of the window will spark flighty thoughts in the audience as well. More than anyone else, even more than Nicholas Ray -- who serves as a far more accurate comparison to the director than Hitch because the only link between the latter is their nationality -- Michael Powell understood the power of color, and Black Narcissus is the greatest film I've ever seen to deal with the subject of desire. The film's detractors, sparse as they are, criticize the film for caring more for color than plot, something they evidently do not know the director freely admitted. But it is precisely his use of color that drives the story: extroverted as Byron's acting may be, the film draws its tension from the gradual shift in lighting and hue as more and more color seeps into the film even as it grows darker and darker. Films of wounded faith and confused sexuality tend to be somber (think Bergman), but Powell turns serious themes into an emotional roller coaster solely through his disciplined formal progression. It is impossible to tell at the beginning of the film that it will end as a horror-opera, and the fact that you never notice the shift proves that the cinematography layered the film where the straightforward script wouldn't.

For those with minimal knowledge of the Archers, it may not mean much when I say that Black Narcissus makes their previous efforts look incomplete. But Powell & Pressburger already had a number of masterpieces under their belt, and even in 1947 were just halfway through a four-year period that produced as many classics. But the climactic sequence, which choreographs Ruth's murderous stalk through the convent and her final confrontation with Clodagh to the score, shows the director preparing for upcoming musical forays such as The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, in which he would fully parlay his cinematic sensuality into its purest form: dance and music. There's even a nod to the past in a POV shot of Ruth, incensed by Dean's rejection of her, literally seeing red before blacking out, recalling the "blinking" shot of a man being anesthetized in A Matter of Life and Death. I know I haven't helped matters, but this film is about more than its aesthetic beauty, even though its looks inform everything about it. Like Georges Méliès before him, Powell was a magician, not literally like the Frenchman but certainly artistically, and Black Narcissus is his greatest enchantment. The Red Shoes is the greater experience, removing the latent politics of this film -- though Powell was a lifelong Tory and probably not too invested in seeing India win its freedom -- and reconstituting the sensuality around its purest expression, art, but Black Narcissus is likely the most beautiful film I've ever seen, one that makes me sit back in appreciative wonder during repeat viewings just as Martin Scorsese marvels over the Archers' achievement. I can only hope my own love of the film lasts as long as his.


  1. I really need to get a bluray player.

  2. Some surprising connections to Nicholas Ray and George Melies (!) you've made here. Embarrassingly, this and The Red Shoes are the only Powell/Pressburgers I've seen, though eventually I need to venture more out into their filmography.

    Black Narcissus is indeed one of the greatest uses of color captured on film; I might be hesitant to say it's THE most beautiful film ever made (I still stick out for Red Shoes and maybe some of Terrence Malick's stuff), but man is it close.

    It's been many months since I saw the film, though I remember at first being just as caught up in all the eroticism of its first and second halves before being blindsided by the last third, when the Indian kid dies from the sickness (if I'm remembering this correctly) and then everything just comes apart. I'm actually about to watch Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, another movie in which Deborah Kerr plays a nun.

    I have to confess that I was initially convinced by Jean Simmons' casting as the Indian girl. Hey, I thought she was a realistic Indian. Yeah, yeah, I'm a bigot, sue me.

  3. I prefer The Red Shoes overall and I think that the use of color is used to purer effect as it concerns art in a grand sense, but I still think that the palette and construction of Black Narcissus is, on the whole, more inherently impressive. Where everything about The Red Shoes grabs me, Black Narcissus makes its biggest impression through color before the ingeniousness of its staging set in.

    A Malick film would certainly be a key competitor, as would Antonioni's Red Desert, but apart from those and Nick Ray, Powell is unassailable.

    If you're looking to see more Archers films, I would recommend jumping first to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and I Know Where I'm Going! Combined, they round out the top five and are all among the greatest, most arresting films I have ever seen. Col. Blimp especially is astonishing; I like Patton Oswalt's blurb for the film when he was picking his favorite Criterions, noting that it's a film of epic sweep, tragic, humorous and resigned to the empire's fate, and that Powell managed to extract all this from what was basically the British equivalent of Family Circus.

  4. I've put I Know Where I'm Going! at the top of the list of Archers films I'm making it a point to see... embarrassingly, I first heard about it not because of the filmmakers, but because it's one of those films that sticks out like a sore thumb in those Leonard Maltin Video Guides (it's one of the few titles with a 4-star rating). I also seriously want to see Peeping Tom, though I know Pressburger had nothing to do with that one.