The Story of the Prince and the Beggar Maid: The Criterion Collection Presents ‘Black Narcissus’
Directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell
UK – 100 minutes. Color
Black Narcissus is one of the seminal works in British film history. Transplanting Anglican nuns to a strange and corrupting land, their identity and peace of mind is threatened by the exotic setting. The altitude and ever blowing winds of their Himalayan “home” resurface forgotten memories and abandoned desires. Their newfound sensual impulses put into question their religious identity and though they continue with their daily activities with a large degree of normalcy, these new feelings threaten their ethical convictions.
Each setting is carefully drawn to inspire in its characters a driving emotional force; the bare, neutral nunnery in Calcutta inspires order, the Irish countryside warm but distant comfort and the Mountain palace, animalistic desire and a distinct sense of isolation. The characters are able to flourish in the Calcutta setting, and are secure within the realm of reliability. With exception of Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who is volatile from the onset, there is no doubt as to the women’s vocational choice early on in the film. However, moving to the mountains, into the “women’s palace” (a long abandoned palace for a previous sultan’s harem) puts into question and unravels their carefully constructed religious personalities.
The Irish countryside is the setting presented by Sister Claudogh’s (Deborah Kerr) flashbacks. They are literally sun-tinted memories from a previous life. In one sequence, the adolescent Kerr stands before a body of water that glows like thousands of crystals hit by a cascading light. A visually stunning composition also reflects her idealized perception of the moment, one that is quite apparently ill constructed and fantastic. Even in retrospect, she seems totally oblivious to her young lovers’ disinterest. Though older and more mature, she maintains these naive ideals of young and romantic love.
A film that can only be described as “feminine”, it carefully paints the motions of these women, young, old, virginal, promiscuous and their struggle with their individual desire in a world that is riling against them. One can find strong and interesting female characters at the heart of nearly every P&P film, and this is no exception. This is perhaps their most overtly sexual venture, exploring the conflicting social norms of different cultures, as well as the perception of the value of the feminine characters through their sexual roles. In this sense, Sister Ruth is the most fascinating. It is never clear why she decided to join this particular religious order; even before we meet her, there are sly remarks as to the fact that she is in the “wrong line”. Her predetermined tendency towards illness, and her feelings of being an outsider, are all aggravated by the mountains, and in particular the presence of the virile Mr. Dean (the incomparable David Farrar). His passing compliments and words of reassurance fuel a horrific transformation in her character, which seems to be linked to her unnatural and asexual life as a nun.
The film’s final act, which focuses on the collapse of the relatively minor power the nuns have established and Sister Ruth’s insanity, is among the greatest sequences in P&P’s oeuvre. Hinting at their next feature, The Red Shoes, the shots in this final act are choreographed by music; each cut, each camera movement is matched with this feverish score. In particular jarring cuts between long shots and close-ups create something of a Soviet-style montage driven by the ecstatic emotion of its leads.
Black Narcissus remains one of the most sensually charged films ever made; due not only to the erotic impulses of its characters, but the rich textures of its image and text. Brilliantly acted, each performer is able to capture the necessary operatic grandiosity needed to compete with the spectacle of nature. Similarly, they channel the quiet introspection needed for the screen, effectively operating on two related though distinct levels to create a uniquely British catalogue of performances. The fact that this film is not a top tier Powell & Pressburger production speaks only for the quality of their overall output, not the weakness of this particular effort. There are few films with no apparent faults, this is one of them.
– Justine Smith