Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Black Narcissus is the story of a group of nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who attempt to build a hospital and school for girls deep in the Himalayas. Resting on a windy cliff 9,000 feet above a small village, their new home is an abandoned palace that housed all the concubines for the General, who is deceased – his son now runs the village. The women struggle with repressing their passions in this exotic and isolated location, and tension mounts between Clodagh and the mentally unstable Sister Ruth, who are both attracted to the dashing Mr. Dean, a British agent to the reigning General. Directed by the powerful duo of Powell and Pressburger, with director of photography Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for his revelatory work, Black Narcissus’ power comes from its alluring suggestiveness and dreamy setting, creating a dark fantasy of desire.
Cardiff has said that painter Johannes Vermeer was an inspiration for his work done on Black Narcissus, and it’s clearly apparent through the lighting and framing of scenes. Interiors are shot with few, if any, practical lights. Most of the illumination comes from windows, softly spilling into the room and casting a soft glow on the characters while creating steep-angled shadows on the environment. The mix of dreamy lighting and stark, expressionistic shadows creates a dichotomy that mirrors the characters’ internal conflict, particularly Sister Clodagh, who dreams of being young and in love, while trying to repress those feelings in an attempt to lead by example. Vermeer’s Lady Holding a Balance is a good comparison to Cardiff’s work, as it features so many similar elements visual elements found in the film; the title could probably thematically describe Black Narcissus as well.
Vermeer is probably not the only influence, as many interior shots utilize the strong sense of perspective that was prevalent in Dutch realism during Vermeer’s time. Some scenes are framed so the perspective lines created by the set guide the viewer’s eye to a certain spot of power. The small chapel, for example, is shot so the vanishing point is right where the cross is. This puts emphasis on the holiness of the place, and gives the impression that the sisters are under the Lord’s protection.
The lighting and framing are particularly important for the characterization of Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth, augmenting her performance as she goes mad throughout the film. The first time Ruth is even mentioned, she’s represented by an empty chair at the table where all the other sisters are eating – her absence signifies her status as the black sheep of the order, while foreshadowing her decision to leave the order later in the film. Sometimes Sister Ruth is shot with the camera tilted on the x-axis, contrasting her presence with the other sisters as uneasy and unbalanced. This same technique was used on the old Batman TV show, where scenes featuring villains are shot with the same tilt, while scenes in the Batcave are balanced on the x-axis. The light on Sister Ruth is often harsher, working with her makeup to give her an oily shine. In one scene, in which Ruth confronts Clodagh about her feelings for Mr. Dean, Ruth’s appearance changes in her close-ups because of the change in lighting. These shifts within a scene give the feeling that Ruth is possessed – whether by her passions or the devil – is up to the viewer.
The eroticism of Black Narcissus is powered by suggestion, both in double-entendre dialogue and suggestive shots, as well as explicit-looking props and set pieces, though you may not notice the first time you watch the film. During a scene with the Old General, we see him as a reflection in a mirror that is quite clearly a phallus complete with ruby-adorned pubic hair.
Perhaps the most erotic scene occurs in the Blue Room, between the Young General, played by Sabu, and the unabashedly sexual Kanchi (Jean Simmons). The Young General arrives to the palace, hoping the nuns will further his education, despite the school being for girls only. Kanchi watches the Young General through a window covered in white latticework, in the Blue Room, as Sabu charismatically makes his case to Sister Clodagh to be enrolled as a student. In a tight close-up of Kanchi’s face, her eyes wander from Sabu to something else directly in front of her that we can’t immediately see – her mouth becomes a sly and playful smile. The film cuts to a long shot of Kanchi, the perpetual wind inside the palace pushing her skirt against her form, and we now see that she must have been looking at the relief of a nude woman that is a part of the latticework she’s standing in front of. Instead of cutting to a close-up of what she was looking at, a common technique to show relationships between objects, Black Narcissus leaves it to you to fill in the gap.
Kanchi dances her way to a vulva-shaped mirror, which complements the phallic one in the same room we saw earlier, and she playfully observes herself. The Young General suddenly enters the room, regards her briefly, and makes his way to the window in an attempt to separate himself from her. Kanchi now observes herself in the phallus mirror, and we see her focus shift to something else in the mirror. Unlike earlier in front of the window, the camera tracks to the side to follow her gaze, revealing the Young General’s reflection in the mirror as he stands in front of the nude relief. This is both a visual reference to how we saw his father earlier in the film, while also illustrating Kanchi’s sexual perspective of The Young General.
To end the scene, the film goes back to its Dutch influences by framing the two in a long shot of the room. It’s a shot that plays on perspective, with Kanchi appearing small and far away from the closer and larger Young General. The camera is slightly off-center and the vanishing point is placed between the two characters, highlighting the space between them. Kanchi then makes her way towards the camera at an angle, growing larger in the frame as she crosses the vanishing point, and it’s there that she attracts The Young General’s attention. It’s a wordless scene, but with all of the visual components work in unison, it speaks volumes to the mind frame of the two characters.
Black Narcissus not only utilizes visual compositions to convey the inner workings of its characters, but also how it edits these compositions together through the use of dissolves. By letting one image slowly dissolve into another so that for a moment they occupy the same space, Powell and Pressburger are able to strengthen the bonds between two subjects. When Ruth leaves Mr. Dean’s house for her final conflict with Sister Clodagh, the film dissolves from a close-up of Mr. Dean’s face slowly into another close-up of Sister Clodagh’s – he’s thinking of her and she of him. The most ominous of dissolves is perhaps one of Sister Ruth, who is spying on Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean as they talk outside. This particular edit begins with a medium shot of Clodagh so we can see her torso and face. It then dissolves, not into another still image, but a tracking shot that moves downward through the trees of the jungle, which show natives drumming around a fire. This ominous pounding around a burning fire lives deep inside Sister Ruth and will only grow as the film goes on.
As the sisters become unsettled, they reiterate the feeling that their environment is too clear. The air and vividness of the flora and fauna are too much for them to handle, stirring passionate emotions inside them, that they struggle to oppress. If they see their world the way we do, it’s painted in the vibrant dyes of Technicolor – a luscious hyper-reality of color. The film’s capacity to illicit deep feelings comes from the incredible attention to detail come from an acute awareness of how images affect an audience. We, like Sister Clodagh and her group of nuns, are moved by the world of the film because it toes the line between the suggested and the explicit, often provoking us with its frankness.
— Jae K. Renfrow