Legendary writer-producer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a range of fantastical cinematic worlds, full of beauty and strangeness. In these worlds, the ambitions of dancers turn shoes into magical possessions, crashed RAF pilots become ghosts fighting for their right to return to life, and simple journeys and pilgrimages face the invisible forces of folklore and the unique atmosphere of places.
With this in mind, watching their one-of-a-kind drama Black Narcissus, which had its world premiere on 4 May 1947, raises some intriguing questions about the outlook of Britain in its period of production. Here, the world outside of Europe is treated, through a perceived exoticism, with a surreal otherness. This sits alongside a radical questioning of female sexual desire and repression, which unleashes a level of eroticism that’s surprising for 1940s British cinema.
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Black Narcissus charts the opening of a convent of nuns in the Himalayan mountains, following the enigmatic Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) in particular. However, the pressure and isolation of the nuns’ location leads to the convent’s inevitable downfall, with one sister in particular, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), becoming literally possessed by her lust for a local Englishman, Mr Dean (David Farrar).
Amid this pressurised drama, Powell and Pressburger’s film also follows many tangential narratives, dealing with cultural differences, blossoming smaller romances and the almost sentient presence of the landscape. This last element makes for an interesting starting point for detailing the film’s main crux: how the exoticism of its location pushes the characters into their inner selves, but also how such landscapes – emphasised and exaggerated – can tell so much about the British psyche.
Although a large part of it was shot at Pinewood Studios, and at Leonardslee Gardens in Sussex, Black Narcissus is very much a landscape film. The Himalayan topography is a Technicolor dream – vibrant like the hidden fantasies of many of the characters. The dramatic shot of Sister Clodagh ringing the convent’s bell in desperation summarises the film perfectly. In the matte painting of the mountain chasm (by the brilliant Walter Percy Day, with assistance from his sons, Arthur and Thomas), the gulf looks as though it could descend infinitely. But it’s equally the precipice of Sister Clodagh’s inner world. The world of her past passions is an emotional chasm that the landscape around forces her to confront – alongside Mr Dean’s impossibly short shorts, of course.
The camera emphasises this gulf, highlighting the fantastical nature of the landscape and the inner female experience. It’s incredibly fitting that this gulf eventually drags one character to their rocky doom.
Black Narcissus is, in many ways, radical for British cinema in the 1940s because of this daring exploration of the ‘other’ – the otherness of female desire (if only because of its lack of previous presentation) and the otherness of the world outside of western society. In this sense, the colonial aspect of the film is intriguing and far less typical in ideology for British cinema set in other countries, even with the white Jean Simmons playing a local person of colour.
The film pre-empts a movement that gradually came to the fore in more problematic ways in both western music and film in the following decade. In music, the likes of Les Baxter explored the colonial allure of the other, mixing western desires for erotic mood music with traditional instrumentation from Africa and the Middle East. Epic exotica cinema – Robert Pirosh’s Valley of the Kings (1954), Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955) and Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) being three of many examples – had been a norm in Hollywood for some time (in fact it’s been a staple since the dawn of cinema), but the Technicolor years of the 1950s saw a boom of such films set in seemingly fantastical countries.
The increasing accessibility of flights abroad can in some way explain this. The jet-set generation required that their films matched their own increased potential to explore the globe by engaging in an equally increased level of mythmaking when portraying other countries.
So how does Black Narcissus sit within this trend? It could be argued that Powell and Pressburger’s film is far more nuanced in that it uses its own sense of amazement at the wider world to subvert and question the inner worlds of its characters rather than use them for simple, ‘othered’ storytelling.
This is the film’s radical draw. It explains why, on the whole, it has aged incredibly well. Unlike other films in this guise or genre, this story of interlopers arriving to ‘better’ the locals is overtly aware of the fallacy in such a journey. For the sisters of Black Narcissus know deep down that, in spite of their own good will in the long journey and fight to stay in the Himalayas, it is a foolish gesture.
After all, such exotic landscapes already exist within themselves. The repressed, undiscovered country of their own pleasures ultimately proves far more devastating than the unsettling backdrop of the mountain range, dreamt up from afar.
Originally published: 25 May 2017