Film Review: Michael Powell and Emetic Pressburger's "Black Narcissus" (1947)


Figure 1. Black Narcissus Movie Poster

Subliminal messaging and a rather hectic atmosphere has never been more notable than in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus” (1947). It is a story of how five nuns travel to a mountain top village known as Mopu, located within the Himalayas, to open up a convent for the village as a school and hospital, although the old building used to house a monastery, but was originally intended to house the dead General’s concubines. 

Figure 2. Sister Ruth bathed in red light

The film displays a psychological aspect of repression, which is quite scandalous if one was to release this sort of film within the modest 1940’s. As Mark Duguid wrote, “Although the script never directly challenged the strict standards of the censors, it hardly needs saying that the repressed desires of nuns was not a common - or safe - subject for a British film in 1947.” (N/A) The village of Mopu is set high up within the mountains, so naturally the air gets thinner the more you travel up. But it has been noted that in the film, it is said a few times that “there is something in the air”, causing the nuns to experience these hormonal spasms which conjure up repressed memories of who they were before entering the sisterhood, hence the subliminal messaging. There is quite a bit of tension experienced by the characters as well as the audience, although the kind of tension the nuns experience is mostly that of an erotic nature. The story focuses on two of the nuns mainly, Sister Superior Clodagh and Sister Ruth, who appear to be effected greatly by the village atmosphere. Whilst Sister Clodagh longs for the love she once had and lost, Sister Ruth portrays that of deranged insanity, created from her inner desires which have been long bottled up due to her joining of the Order of the Servants of Mary, the catalyst of her realising here desire being that of an Englishman living within Mopu, Dean. 

Figure 3. Sister Ruth applying red lipstick

The psychological aspect of hidden desire was important to put across within this performance, as subliminal messages were cast here and there as the nuns relived past experiences in their minds. An exceptional demonstration would be that of Sister Ruth residing her role from the convent by dressing in a deep red dress, to which she then proceeded to apply lipstick in an enticing manner, as she ravishes the feeling of being able to have something touch her lips once again. Another example would be that of Sister Clodagh’s memory resurfacing of her riding a horse. Although she may miss the freedom of being able to venture out and do fun activities, this could also be a subtle way of explaining to the audience that she misses having something between her legs. Essentially, we even have hidden messages early on at the beginning of the film. It is noticeable that the house keeper of the old palace dances through each room, and then reaches a room full of bird cages. Again, this is a sort of message, a foreshadowing of how the sisters are effectively “trapped birds”. But most of the sisters cannot succumb to their desires, for most of them remain faithful to the Lord, as hard as it may be for them upon entering this setting. As Thomas Pryor has noted, “If, as it appears, the intention of Black Narcissus is to demonstrate that religious zeal is dependent on suitable climatic and social surroundings, then history has already provided the answer to this thesis.” (1947)

Figure 4. Sister Clodagh ringing the bell

Judging by this quote, it would seem that setting is a dominant feature within the plot of this story. As Joseph Jon Lanthier poetically pointed out, “The claustrophobic art direction by Alfred Junge similarly, though more violently, enforces the environment's boundaries and brings the runaway bodily needs of the sisters into sharper focus.” (2012). The term claustrophobic being used to describe an outdoors setting really emphasises how isolated the characters feel, but also expands on our view of their inner desires. It also the audience to witness the development of attitudes due to altitude. As Sister Ruth increasingly boils up from within, we see the lighting of the scene change her, as she slowly becomes bathed within the colour red. This effectively shows how she has changed, but could also be a reference to how the environment has changed her also (such as, the red lighting). The matte painting of the bell tower scene, despite not being able to shoot on location, clearly puts across how distant the nuns are from the society they originally knew, creating, again, the feeling of isolation, the individuals they can truly speak to is each other.


From stunning settings to applaud-worthy performances by the cast, Black Narcissus (1947) has given us an enjoyable experience. And although it may not be the most fast paced feature, it still sent chills down the spines of the viewer, with racy moments between characters and emotional dialogue, it is no wonder that this cinematic piece of art has captured the attention of many individuals.

Bibliography

Duguig, M. (N/A) 'Black Narcissus (1947)' (N/A) In: http://www.screenonline.org.uk (N/A) [Online] At: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/438337/ (Accessed on 29.11.14)

Pryor, T. (1947) 'MOVIE REVIEW: Black Narcissus' (14.08.1947) In: http://www.nytimes.com (1947) [Online] At: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF173CE261BC4C52DFBE66838C659EDE (Accessed on 29.11.14)

Lanthier, J. (2012) 'Film Review: Black Narcissus' (30.12.12) In: http://www.slantmagazine.com/ (2012) [Online] At: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/black-narcissus (Accessed on 29.11.14)

Illustrations:

Figure 1. Black Narcissus Movie Poster (1947) [Movie Poster] At: http://store.walterfilm.com/images/BlackNarcissusLC.jpg (Accessed on 29.11.14)

Figure 2. Sister Ruth bathed in red light (1947) [Movie Still] At: http://cdn.screeningfilm.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/blacknarcissus.jpg (Accessed on 29.11.14)

Figure 3. Sister Ruth applying red lipstick (1947) [Movie Still] At: http://www.theartsdesk.com/sites/default/files/images/stories/FILM/graham_fuller/Black_Narcissus_lipstick_scene.jpg (Accessed on 29.11.14)

Figure 4. Sister Clodagh ringing the bell (1947) [Movie Still] At: http://offscreen.com/images/Narcissus_Bell_Precipice_hires.jpg (Accessed on 29.11.14)

Comments

  1. Hi Chelsea,

    Nice, thoughtful review :)
    Just make sure that you proofread before you post - you have a few spelling mistakes in here, and an odd sentence here and there, like this one -
    'Sister Ruth residing her role from the convent by dressing in a seep red dress,'

    ReplyDelete

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