The bad boys of classic Brit cinema pull out all the stops, maybe a couple too many
In Craig McCall’s short documentary Painting with Light, included on Criterion’s fabulous DVD of Black Narcissus, Kathleen Byron, who plays the mad nun in the film, says of director Michael Powell, “He gave me half of my performance with the lighting.” This comment, an unnecessarily modest one given Byron’s brilliant impersonation of Sister Ruth, points up both the many pleasures and occasional pitfalls of the film. Splendidly presented in a new digital transfer on a DVD loaded with extras, Black Narcissus is one of the high points of color design and lighting in cinema. But Powell’s formal manipulations come at a price. Mesmerizing to look at, involving and inevitable as a dream, the film also has an underlying mechanistic quality, a focus on the look and sound at the expense of the characters, that slightly dilutes its achievement.
Based on a popular 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus, scripted by Powell’s longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger, is set in Mopu, at the base of the Himalayas. While Godden was praised for the authenticity of her book – no surprise given her years of living in colonial India – Powell took the radical step of shooting the entire film on sets, at Pinewood Studios. This was one of many extremes in a film that would meticulously recreate the lighting of the Old Masters; gleefully portray a nun as a sexual banshee; and in one legendary sequence, match the actors’ movements to an elaborate piece of music.
The story follows the attempts by five Anglican nuns to establish an order in a remote, faded palace (formerly a house of courtesans) donated by a thoughtful general. The sisters are quickly overwhelmed by the privations of this place, 9,000 feet up and perched on a precipice. The locals are suspicious at best, regarding the nuns as curiosities who will soon vanish. The local government agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), upon whom their existence depends, is sarcastic and, more disturbing, sexy in his walking shorts and no shirt. As one of the sisters says, the whole atmosphere is “strange,” frightening them with images like the silent Holy Man on the mountain, tempting them with worldly pleasures, and suggesting more exciting ways of living in the world than as brides o’ Christ.
The sisters’ insular world is also under attack from within. The leader, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), takes her role as “sister superior” too literally; Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), a gardener, begins to lose her grip, planting flowers instead of desperately needed vegetables; Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) invokes the wrath of the locals by administering medicine to a sick baby, whose death is then attributed to her. Most problematic is Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who abuses the natives as she tries to deal with her growing jealousy of her superior, lust for Mr. Dean, and general insanity.
Episodic and vignettish rather than a linear narrative, the film includes notable comic relief in the form of a toothless hag (May Hallatt) who caretakes the palace and screeches her longing for the days when it was a whorehouse. There’s also a decorative but pointless romance between Jean Simmons, as a slutty local girl turned out by her family, and Sabu, as a foppish young general. Simmons has one of the film’s most provocative and censor-defying sequences in a lewd dance through the palace. Simmons has another sexy moment when she’s on her knees in front of Sabu’s crotch, suggesting she’s ready for lunch. (Sabu is suitably noble during this encounter, though he ultimately succumbs to her charms.) As diverting as these detours are, they quickly pale beside the driving force of the drama, the conflict between an increasingly aggressive and unhinged Sister Ruth, representing civilization sundered by contact with a pagan otherworld; and Sister Clodagh, who stands for righteousness and piety at all cost, even as she finds herself, like Sister Ruth, aroused by the hunky, hairy-chested Mr. Dean.
While Kerr often gave remarkable performances, here she’s rarely more than adequate, overshadowed by Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth. Byron’s commanding presence indeed dominates the film as she gradually but perceptibly unravels in its dreamy setting. One of her most intense scenes is also one of the simplest: Sister Ruth applying lipstick. This prosaic event, shot in choker close-up and color that seems to vibrate off the screen, powerfully signifies her final parting with her pious life and in fact the end of the nuns’ tenure. Powell is at his most imaginative in the scenes with this dynamic psycho. He lingers on close-ups of her face, one of the most beautiful and evocative in classic British cinema, tracking her descent into madness sometimes with uncomfortably close shots of her eyes. Her maniacal movements and crazed visage give Black Narcissus the feel of a horror film as she races wraithlike through the dark, wind-whipped rooms of the palace, or when she appears suddenly in a room. Attentive viewers will note the film’s resemblance to another quasi-horror classic, Vertigo, in the crazed climactic fight between Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh at the bell.
Visual purists will find much to delight the eye in Black Narcissus. In the Painting with Light documentary, cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who won an Oscar for his work on the film and supervised this transfer) lists Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh as influences. The first shot of the film could almost be excised and convincingly offered as a newly discovered Vermeer. Martin Scorsese, whose commentary (along with the late director’s) is included on the DVD, was among many future filmmakers inspired by Black Narcissus. Watching it, he says, was “like being bathed in color.” This feeling of being immersed in a dreamworld is aided immeasurably by Peter Ellenshaw’s superb matte paintings of the valleys and vistas of an imaginary Himalayas.
Equally challenging is the film’s melding of music and movement. This is most ambitious in the climactic sequence, a 12-minute tour-de-force in which the movements of the characters (the embattled Sisters) are matched to a musical sequence written by Brian Easdale. Few directors outside the experimental realm would attempt such a thing, and it has an undeniable power. On the other hand, some viewers will be more annoyed than moved by the haunted-house operatic chorus that arises throughout this sequence to accompany Ruth on her lethal trek. While the imagery here remains unforgettable – Kathleen Byron’s sudden appearance as a violent lunatic, framed in a dark doorway, is genuinely chilling – the music sometimes slides into bathos.
Powell’s heavy attention to the formal aspects of the film may have distracted him from the creaky plot, unnecessary subplots, and sometimes mediocre, soap-operaish acting. Kerr’s reaction to Sister Ruth plummeting over the cliff is especially unwelcome in this regard. She gives a wide-eyed, silent-movie-style look of terror complete with hand across her mouth, a reaction unworthy of all that’s gone before. It’s hard to imagine Powell not working in greater depth with an actress of Kerr’s caliber. Devotees will argue that such effects are intentional, part of the film’s stylized, operatic aesthetic. Perhaps, but they also distance the audience from what is happening on screen and, at least for this viewer, keep Black Narcissus just shy of the masterpiece status so often claimed for it.