Director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who frequently teamed up under the production name “The Archers,” created some of the best British films of the 1940s and 50s — masterpieces of cinematic formalism with (then) pretty shocking content. Today, their surprisingly large oeuvre still stands as some of the most commanding achievements of the medium — rare, literary journeys that married distinctive, European distortions with engaging narrative thrust.
Black Narcissus, a film about, of all things, the latent erotic desires of British nuns, is probably The Archers’ pinnacle achievement. It really isn’t an exaggeration to say that movies aren’t made like this very often (if ever) — movies that combine psychological complexity with subtlety and rich, ridiculously impeccable presentation. Any aspiring film buff should pop Black Narcissus in the player first, before Citizen Kane, before The Godfather, before any epic of Eisenstein or Lang; there just may not be anything else so deliberately, perfectly crafted.
Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, who leads a cadre of inexperienced (in every sense) nuns deep into the Indian Himalayas to occupy an old, abandoned palace which they intend to remake into a mission/hospital/school. The otherworldly beauty of their surroundings would seem a Godsend (ha!), but prove to be ruinously disarming. The locals, initially dismissed by these devout Christians as superstitious, sensate pagans, begin to erode the nuns’ faith; they reject this Western push of “Civilization” with utter nonchalance, much preferring the simple pleasures of a sensual life. One by one, the sisters find themselves disarmed and unable to adhere to their responsibilities. Clodagh herself begins to lose control of the situation, longing strangely for the passions of her past.
Perhaps even worse than the natives themselves, the nuns find the very apotheosis of their frustrations in the British colonial authority, played by David Farrar, who, while retroactively silly-looking in his cargo hotpants, absolutely reeked of sex appeal at the time, encapsulating the most potent of the nuns forbidden desires — the erotic. Farrar finds a middle-ground between the sheer repression of the sisters and the simple delights of sensuality — he’s skeptical, but content to follow his instincts, which lead him to a subdued infatuation with Kerr. Horrified, Kerr begins to reciprocate, though she’ll never admit it. The two characters engage in a frustrated rapport of combativeness and flirtation while the rest of the nuns slowly unhinge under their newfound doubts. One in particular — Sister Ruth, played by sexpot Kathleen Byron, unravels completely, giving into her maddening urges to become a creature of danger and unbalanced sexuality that’s downright frightening.
The Archers find in Black Narcissus an allegorical feast — though hardly politically correct by modern standards, the depiction of “civilized” society and primitivism, reason and emotion, becomes a surprisingly evenhanded look at colonialism itself. Depending on your point of view, the nuns’ lives are tragically wasted exercises of denial, asceticism that seems as equally destructive as self-indulgence. Or, equally compelling, their lives of worship are noble sacrifices. Either scenario seems acceptable in this wonderfully ambivalent debate. The Archers treat such issues with the gravitas they deserve, but never without romantic wit and accessibility.
Whether you choose to indulge the questions Black Narcissus poses or not, the film is easily one of the most beautiful studies in form ever made. The Archers’ use of cinematography and production design (both of which garnered Oscars here), of color and shadow, of symbol and metaphor, remain unmatched. If nothing else, Black Narcissus is still the use of a medium at its most evocative, creating a complex piece of artistry with an approachable form of entertainment.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.
Black Narcissus / Phillip Stephens
Film | August 29, 2007 | Comments ()