Illustrating the cold war between innocence and experience in both form and content, Black Narcissus plays the aphrodisiac of the exotic against the rigor of monasticism, employing scintillating color and humid climes as emblems of repressed sexuality. Within each febrile hot flash and distrait daydream, it erects sensualists from cloistered servants, simultaneously enticing the viewer through expansive shots of cesious skies and the beguiling whisper of mountain breezes. Through gentle inference and aesthetic clarity, the mise en scène temporarily conjures a narcotic ambience, ultimately pulling the rug out from under its placid tone at the behest of the unchained subconscious. This deviation into the macabre forces human emotion to its periphery, summoning suspense from isolation and unmasking disillusionment as a fate worse than unfulfilled fantasy.
Harboring pride and the ghost of the past under her habit, Abbess Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) shepherds her sistren to a West Bengali palace, endeavoring to soften her reticent demeanor and bring medicine to the mountain-bound natives. The locus of her calling is steeped in metaphor, dangling at the precipice of a menacing crag, foreshadowing the moral tightrope walk between piety and desire that will cloud the judgment of our protagonist and her equally doubtful devotees.
Clodagh’s temptation is personified by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a British expatriate who bears little regard for community standards, treating his position as factotum as an excuse for sexual insinuation and unrepentant drunkenness. His open disdain for purity and hypocrisy dredges up uncertainty amongst the order, culminating in brazen criticisms of Clodagh, which inspire dissention and suspicion of our “stiff-necked, obstinate” leading lady.
The altitude and wind furthur stir discord and malaise, titillating the flesh and nape of each neck of the chaste flock, reawakening their artistic and erotic urges. Clodagh even beholds the reflection of her past sexual experience in Dean’s piercing stare, the robust tones of the score accompanying the mild zephyr to inspire a full-bodied swoon, matched only by the breathing pigmentation of the local garb and immense scope of Jack Cardiff’s photography.
The liberal application of color implies experience and receptivity from the opening shot, exhibiting conflict between the virginal blue sky and the venereal pink hue of the meticulously-stitched Himalayan garments. Cardiff manages to soften the ornate costuming and overarching Technicolor canvas, creating an airy uniformity that evokes the texture of a dream. He contrasts the ebullient Eastern shades through the vacant white of Clodagh’s habit, using the draped sides of her veil to obscure her facial expressions in chastened shadow.
Breaking free from the constraints of these spectral gowns, the sultry Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) grapples with the anachronism of her divine vows, gleaning inspiration from the untamed, slinking gestures of the orphaned Kanchi (Jean Simmons) and perfumed scent of a neophyte general (Sabu). Feigning disgust at the emotional outpouring shared between this jejune couple, Ruth opts to shelter her passion for Mr. Dean beneath the shade of sleep-deprived eyes and reveries of a mounting fever, lashing out at Clodagh in response to the prioress’ lack of libidinal flame.
Their corresponding struggles burn brighter than either woman could fathom and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger use the indistinguishable visages of both actresses to express a shared detachment. While Ruth suffers from unfulfilled lust, Clodagh’s sorrow swells in her memory, coaxed to the surface by Dean’s chauvinism and the academic thirst of the young nobleman. One haunting transition finds Clodagh drifting during communal prayer to a night of caroling with a bygone love, the camera focusing in on her hands as she tenderly caresses a bejeweled gift by lantern light. As her mind wanders back to her upland prison, she extinguishes her recollection like the candle cradled between her fingers, remaining imprisoned beneath the gloaming of the crucifix and the inflexibility of obligation.
The mounting innuendo and anguish shared between our anchoresses stimulates a panoptic, dreadful aura, climaxing in fleshly rebellion and sanguinary stratagem. In the aftermath of Ruth’s laicization and Mr. Dean’s spurning of her advances, the clammy and make-up smeared libertine, lit only at the eyes, lunges at a panic-stricken Clodagh, hurtling over the bluff and into the afterlife on a gust of unrestrained fury. At the heart of this duel fought over intellectual chastity, The Archers uncovered the tragedy of human desire in bondage, utilizing the foreboding of distance and allure of the unknown to embody earthly desolation and regret.
Black Narcissus (Universal Pictures, 1947)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Written by Rumer Godden (novel), Michael Powell (screenplay) and Emeric Pressburger (screenplay)
Photographed by Jack Cardiff