Black Narcissus (1947)

2018 #49
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | U

Black Narcissus

It’s over a year since I watched Black Narcissus, but this review is only materialising now for two reasons: first, my overall tardiness at posting reviews nowadays (my backlog currently numbers north of 140); and second, but actually more relevant, I’ve struggled to make sense of what I thought of it.

On the surface a story about some nuns opening a convent in the Himalayas, there’s so much more going on beneath the film’s surface than just conflicts with locals and amongst the small group of nuns — that much is clear. But what else is going on? Critics often talk about the film’s eroticism, but (even allowing for the fact it was made in 1947 and so could hardly be overt about such things) I rarely felt that. In his video introduction on the Criterion Blu-ray, Bertrand Tavernier says it’s all about desire, specifically female desire, and the prohibition of said desire. Hm. I mean, I don’t disagree that’s in there somewhere, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what it’s “all about”. Writing in Criterion’s booklet (reproduced online here, critic Kent Jones says that “the reduction of Black Narcissus by admirers and detractors (and cocreators!) alike to the three Es — expressionist, exotic […] and erotic — has often deprived this bracing film of its many nuances and complexities.” So, I’m not alone in thinking there’s other stuff going on here… though I’d wager Mr Jones has a better handle on what that is exactly than I do.

I confess, I find this a bit frustrating — not the film itself, but my inability to ‘get’ it. I was never bored, so something kept me engaged, there’s something to it, but I can’t get at what this is. I felt a bit like there’s a germ of a good thing, but it’s not brought out. Like, the characters all being gradually driven mad or hysterical by the place — it’s an effect that’s almost there, but not quite; and it only affects, like, two-and-a-half of them anyway. But maybe I’m expecting the film to be too overt; maybe it was just too subtle for me. Whatever it is, it clearly disturbed the Christians: when the film was released in the US, Catholic weekly The Tidings reportedly asserted that “it is a long time since the American public has been handed such a perverted specimen of bad taste, vicious inaccuracies and ludicrous improbabilities.” Reason enough to like the film, there.

Nuns gone wild

Oh, but my overall confusion aside, there are many specifics that deserve concrete praise. The last 10 or 20 minutes, when it almost turns into a kind of horror movie, are fantastic. (Even the original trailer is largely composed of footage from the film’s final 25 minutes. It’s definitely the best bit.) It all looks ravishing, magnificently shot and designed. There’s the always-stunning work of DP Jack Cardiff (apparently a Technicolor executive claimed the film was the best example of the process), plus the work of production designer Alfred Junge and costumer Hein Heckroth. The luscious backdrops were blown-up black-and-white photos that the art department coloured with pastel chalks, which partly explains the film’s otherworldly beauty. Indeed, considering it was all shot in the UK, the location is very well evoked. That’s not least thanks to the constantly blowing wind, which ruffles clothing and hangings even during interior scenes — a detail that could’ve been easily overlooked during production, but whose presence certainly adds to the atmosphere.

It’s difficult to sum up and rate my reaction to Black Narcissus, because I feel like I missed something — not literally (I followed the plot ‘n’ that), but like I didn’t understand something about it. And yet I was engaged throughout, it’s gorgeous to look at, and the final 20 minutes are stunning on every level. One to revisit, for sure.

4 out of 5

Black Narcissus was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Coincidentally, it’s currently available on iPlayer, but only until tomorrow afternoon.

6 thoughts on “Black Narcissus (1947)

  1. I think there’s something commendable about using the review to cover your frustrations in not getting it, as you say – like some of the best P&Ps, there’s something that’s just ‘out of reach’ about it, and I suppose it’s worth bearing in mind that it was made more than 70 years ago for a very different world. I am reminded here about another of their entries, A CANTERBURY TALE, which I admit took me a couple of goes to appreciate exactly what I was seeing, indeed that the film I thought I was watching was exactly what it was trying to be and that they’d somehow got it made at all. Not easy, to produce something as multi-layered and elusive, but see also THE RED SHOES and without a doubt BLACK NARCISSUS.

    Of course you don’t really need to appreciate the entire subtext at all to enjoy the film. It looks bloody wonderful, almost miraculous considering it was shot in a studio, and even taken simply as the tale of a bunch of nuns struggling to cope in a strange land it’s a good yarn. But it’s as a story about longing that the film really endures. I suppose the entire thing lives or dies on the abilities of Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron to convey the emotions their characters are experiencing, not straightforward when all you really see are their faces, but really beautifully acted with the latter visibly succumbing to lust while Kerr’s Clodagh is fixated on a cocktail of former loves, present fixations and running a building that used to serve as a harem (those murals!) as a convent.

    Personally I think I have this as the best P&P, which is saying something as their work was rarely less than majestic, and along with the titles listed above I would throw in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, COLONEL BLIMP and I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! as completely essential. But it’s here, with an absolutely first class set of performances from the three leads (inc. David Farrar), not to mention Jean Simmons playing quite deliberately the exotic, beguiling counterpoint to the nuns, and the film’s other qualities, that it all really comes together to produce something very, very special.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess it’s at least some kind of testament to these films’ quality that, even if one doesn’t get it, it feels like it’s worth the effort to try to understand what you missed.

      There’s still a lot of their work that I need to see — all of it apart from A Matter of Life and Death, in fact. But I’d certainly agree that that’s a masterpiece as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree how strange and unfathomable some of these P&P films are- I didn’t really ‘get’ The Red Shoes, but it was nonetheless quite haunting, and I’ve had Colonel Blimp’s Blu-ray sitting on a shelf for nearly two years just daring me to actually give it a spin. It just sits there, intimidating me. Black Narcissus, meanwhile… well, I’ve seen it twice now and it still excites and beguiles and infuriates me. I guess that’s the definition of art.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve seen so few of their movies, I really need to put more effort in (well, Red Shoes is on one of my lists this year, so that’s something). Still, it’s easy to see why they’ve endured with such acclaim. Art, indeed.

      Like

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