Monday, May 07, 2012

"Black Narcissus" (1947)

"The brothers only stayed five months. Perhaps the sisters won't stay long, either."

Sister Clodagh is an Anglican nun, charged with opening a convent in the high Himalayas, who must preserve her way of life in the face of complications in the form of Kanchi, a young mischievous girl, Mr. Dean, a rough and tumble British agent who tempts Clodagh away from her vows and Sister Ruth, a problem nun with dark intentions. While trying to transform an old seraglio (concubine living quarters) into a school and hospital for the local people, Sister Clodagh struggles to keep the nuns from straying; she alone must hold everyone together.

One of the most interesting characters in this Pressburger and Powell movie is the landscape itself. You'll know what I mean when you see the backgrounds and landscape shots. They are gorgeous and the look was achieved by painting the mountains on large panes of glass. It has a profound influence on the Sisters who aren’t used to such sights, stunning both them and the audience. Sister Philippa touches the heart of the matter when she says: "I think it is this place. You can see too far. I think you either have to give in to it, like Mr. Dean, or leave." No one goes unaffected and their new perspective atop the mountain seems to exert control over them as they begin to act strangely. Sister Philippa plants flowers instead of vegetables, Sister Clodagh dislikes but is drawn to Mr. Dean and Sister Ruth undergoes a sinister transformation, touched by lust and madness.

If you watch this movie for nothing else watch it for the colours! The film practically blooms before your eyes. And it’s not just that the film is more colourful than anything else but it’s more vivid. Co-Director Michael Powell said they shot the whole movie in a studio in order to control the colour on screen though you’ll swear it was shot on location. The lighting and colour palette were inspired by the Dutch painter Vermeer who has some very vivid colours in his paintings. Even a Technicolor corp executive apparently said that the film was the best example of the Technicolor process. Without those striking visuals it’s doubtful the film would be remembered at all. It should be noted though, that the film won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction, well deserved honours I think.

At its heart, this is a woman’s movie. There is first of all Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr who brings a gravitas and serenity to her role. Then there are the other nuns, including Sister Ruth, as well as Aiyah, the caretaker of the building who once looked after the place for the concubines of the Old General. There is also Kanchi, a young girl who sets her heart on a young prince who has come to be educated at the school and pulls out every stop to get him. Together they form a triumvirate of maiden, mother and crone. The nuns, who have forsaken children of their own, are a mothering influence to the children in the school not just as women but as a symbol of the British Empire mothering her colonies. Significantly, the film was released only months before India gained independence from Britain.

One of the many interesting contrasts in the movie is that it’s about nuns but it seethes with feminine sexuality and eroticism. In fact, Powell said that it was the most erotic film he’d ever made. Consider this, the nuns are establishing a convent in what was originally a house for concubines. Kanchi is a young woman who sees the Young General/prince and uses her body and her brain to attract him. She distracts him at school, dances in front of him and then advocates him to come to her rescue. Sister Ruth is foisted onto Sister Clodagh as a problem nun who may not be suited to the life of a nun. She undergoes the most dramatic change as one night Clodagh comes upon her dressed as a woman, rather than a nun, her hair done up and her lips red with lipstick. She has a crazed look upon her face and what follows is one of the creepiest entrances I have ever seen for any character in any movie. You’ll know it when you see it. To give some context to the relationship between Clodagh and Ruth you should know that Deborah Kerr was the ex-lover of the director while Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron was the director’s current lover. Talk about not having to fake tension!

My only major gripe with the movie was with Kanchi. She was played by Jean Simmons, a white actor who painted her face to appear as a native of the country. This is along the same lines as Mickey Rooney’s offensive caricature of a Chinese man in ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. While I'm sure they thought they had good reason to do this, it just detracts from the film.

That being said, if you're a fan of classic movies I would highly recommend this movie. There's so much going on here and a great example of man vs nature with vivid imagery.

Rating: 4.5/5

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