Black NarcissusBlack Narcissus
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In Craig McCall’s short documentary Painting with Light, included on The Criterion Collection’s fabulous new 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 pleasures and 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 in cinema, extravagantly beautiful in its probing of emotional states through color. But Powell’s extreme 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 makes it ultimately more a brilliant oddity than the classic melodrama it aspires to be.

Based on a popular 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus is set mostly in 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 classic painters, gleefully attack such sacred cows as nuns’ vows, and in one legendary sequence match the actors’ movements to an elaborate piece of music.

The story concerns the attempts by five missionary 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 hostile, regarding them rightly as curiosities who will soon vanish, as others have before them. The local government agent, Mr. Dean, upon whom their existence depends, is sarcastic and, more disturbingly, sexy. And the whole atmosphere, as one of the sisters says, is "strange," frightening them with images such as a silent Holy Man on the mountain, tempting them with worldly pleasures, and suggesting other ways of living in the world than as handmaidens of 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 insanity and her lust for Mr. Dean.

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; and a pointless romance between Jean Simmons, as a vampish local girl turned out by her family for being too willful, and Sabu, as a foppish young general who begs the nuns for lessons in physics and math. (He provides the film’s title, mentioning it as the name of a cheap cologne.) These detours 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, usually shirtless Mr. Dean.

While Kerr often gave remarkable performances, here she’s adequate at best, overshadowed by Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth. Byron’s commanding presence indeed dominates the film as she seems to gradually but perceptibly unravel in the film’s bizarre setting. One of the most intense scenes is also one of the simplest: Sister Ruth applying lipstick. This seemingly prosaic event, shot in choker close-up and vivid color, powerfully signifies her final parting with her pious life and in fact signals the end for the nuns’ tenure. Powell is at his most imaginative in the scenes with this character, perhaps stimulated by her rejection of propriety and order. He lingers on close-ups of her face, one of the most beautiful and evocative in 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 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 some of the influences, all of them painters: Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh. But the explanation is hardly necessary. The first shot of the film is a virtual re-creation of a famous Vermeer painting, with the mother superior standing in the light coming through shutters. The film’s look was an early and decisive inspiration for Martin Scorsese (whose commentary, along with Powell’s, is available here on a second track). He says watching it for the first time was "like being bathed in color." This feeling of being immersed in an otherworldly landscape 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 at its 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 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 total psycho, framed in a dark doorway, is genuinely chilling — the music sometimes descends into bathos.

Powell’s extreme involvement with the formal aspects of Black Narcissus account for much of its enduring interest. His camera powerfully explores the arches and byways of the crumbling palace that houses the nuns, and even the smallest scene — a shot inside a room at night, bathed in amber, in which the fringe on a coverlet ripples ominously in the wind — is invested with a disturbing sense of life. But all these manipulations may have distracted Powell from the creaky plot, unnecessary subplots, and the sometimes mediocre, soap-operaish acting. Kerr’s reaction to Sister Ruth plummeting over the cliff is a wide-eyed, silent-movie-style look of terror complete with hand across her mouth, a reaction unworthy of all that’s gone before. This and other lapses in the plotting and acting, particularly of a reliably brilliant star like Kerr, keep Black Narcissus shy of the masterpiece status so often claimed for it.


Black Narcissus is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.