Black Narcissus is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger from the novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus (1947) charts the trials and tribulations of an order of crisp Anglican nuns seeking to establish a Christian outpost high in the Himalayas in the sensorial environs of the Palace of Mopu, a former brothel. Suffice to say, it doesn’t end well.
In what is likely an instance of false memory, I can almost definitely recall the first time I saw Black Narcissus, or perhaps more truthfully, I can imagine easily the prickly transgressive sensation the film would have likely produced in me when I first watched it as a child.
I’m going to choose to remember it this way, me sitting in front of the telly on some rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m tempted to describe the soothing percussion of the rain against the window and the soporific heat of the gas fire, but I’d almost certainly be embellishing for effect, though again, these details sound likely.
What I can say with more certainty is there is no way I could have understood what Black Narcissus was actually about, not back then. Black Narcissus is a film where much of what transpires between the characters is carried not by their dialogue but by the glances passing between them, or by their spatial relationships, or in what the camera chooses to include in the frame. This movie is a movie about sex, but if you don’t know what sex is yet, much of what drives the characters in the film to behave towards each other in the ways they do is hopelessly cryptic. If your balls haven’t dropped, neither will the penny.
Anyway, I was likely sulking darkly in one corner of the settee after discovering the titular ‘black narcissus’ wasn’t in fact a villainous sorcerer in a Sinbad film or, better still, the name of a spaceship. No, this was an old British film about serious unsmiling nuns, their thick white robes hanging on them like pastry, their hands ringing bells, their hands wringing, and all of them getting upset suddenly, shrilling and flapping at each other like gulls, until one of their group puts on a red dress and suddenly all hell breaks loose…
While I couldn’t have understood the psycho-sexual polarities tugging at the characters of Black Narcissus, I would have been wide-awake to the film’s peculiar atmosphere, my antennae pricking up, jangled by the film’s vibrato. Like all children who sense they’re on the cusp of some forbidden act or experience, I likely soaked it up with horrid dread and pleasure. The BBC might have decided to screen Black Narcissus in the middle of the afternoon, but I knew it wasn’t suitable for me. It unsettled me in ways I couldn’t name or identify – and I liked it.
I’m reminded now of a weird little episode at my secondary school when a group of girls started doing Ouija boards in the toilets. I was thirteen or thereabouts and for a short period of days, there were outbreaks of hysteria and fainting fits, teachers marching red-eyed, wet-faced girls along corridors to sit with them in small rooms. I’m reminded too of a school trip to the Isle of Wight where we shared rooms of punishingly uncomfortable bunk-beds. One night, a large group of us all crammed into the same room, where we told each other horrible true stories about ghost hitchhikers and dead baby-sitters, until the tension between us was so high, so feverish, it felt as if the air itself might ignite with pulsing purple sparks. Anyone coming into that room would have reeled on their heels from the high funk of our stewing hormones – fright, flight and fucking all swirled together – only we were all too young to fuck or even want to fuck, but there it was, rattling away at us anyway, just as the wind in Black Narcissus blows so unceasingly through the corridors of the palace of Mopu…
Today, the pleasure I derive from Powell and Pressburger’s startling film increases with every viewing. I admire its singularity. I’m always surprised it even got made. As the film moves towards its stranger terrains, I have to remind myself Black Narcissus was made in 1947. I understand a BBC remake is due imminently, but I’d rather Darren Aronofsky got hold of it because in pitch, tone and subject-matter, it already feels like one of his movies. I can only assume Black Narcissus was a very personal work for Powell and Pressburger, that Godden’s story was some private itch they wanted to scratch.
Back when I was a university lecturer, I would every year screen the Blu-ray restoration of Black Narcissus on the big screen of the lecture theatre, as part of a programme of films for undergraduate students in support of their project on production design. I would look forward to this opportunity to see Jack Cardiff’s pellucid cinematography writ-large and likewise hear Brian Easdale’s richly impressionist score through the lecture theatre’s array of surround sound speakers. I would also dread screening Black Narcissus because I knew my students would hate it, and if not hate it, then meet the experience with indifference, which was worse.
And largely my students did hate it, yawning throughout like baby birds and rustling the wrappings of their smuggled snacks with pointed impatience. Black Narcissus left my students cold, unmoved by the plight of all these fluttering nuns and seemingly unimpressed by the various devices contrived by the filmmakers to ensure the characters’ physical surroundings compounded and communicated their libidinous turmoil. There is a particular private pain in offering up a favourite thing only to have its preciousness met with strained forbearance.
One of the most celebrated scenes in Black Narcissus comes when Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) very deliberately applies scarlet lipstick to her mouth while Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) looks on, aghast. Sister Ruth has just relinquished her vows and is getting ready to quit the convent for what she hopes is a bunk-up with the disreputable Mr Dean, played by David Farrar. From the outset of the film, Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh have been locked into a battle of wills and this is Sister Ruth’s final disavowal of Sister Clodagh’s authority. She’s had it with God too.
Following one screening of the film, I asked my students for their own thoughts on the lipstick scene. No forty-something male tutor really wants to spell out to a roomful of twenty-year olds how the reddening of a woman’s lips can be read as semiotic short hand for a sudden rush of blood to the labia, so I didn’t. Hoping someone would say it for me, I asked, ‘So what does it mean when Sister Ruth applies her lipstick?’ Finally, after a long silence, a single student put up their hand and answered, ‘That she’s getting ready to go out?’ As answers go it was inarguably accurate, but when I went on to suggest Sister Ruth might as well have been pointing a neon arrow at the absolute readiness of her vagina to receive the rugged attentions of Mr Dean, the lecture theatre fell silent.
I referred next to an earlier conflict between the two nuns in Sister Clodagh’s office, where they argue about Mr Dean. The subject of the scene is the two women’s unspoken desire for him, and the rivalry now firmly established between them for his attentions. Resolve is weakening, vows are wavering, sap is rising, and there on the table between the two warring nuns we see a hand bell, its handle making for a conspicuously phallic silhouette. ‘Obviously, it’s a cock,’ I said to my students. ‘It’s the idea that dare not speak its name. Powell and Pressburger are putting the delicious spectre of Mr Dean’s manhood in plain sight. It is the return of the repressed! The forbidden phallus!’
There is nothing quite like the deepening, abyssal silence a roomful of bored post-prandial students can produce when they’re thinking their tutor is a tragic perv.
But I’m not imagining it. Sexualised imagery is everywhere in this film. It’s on the walls of the old palace in the form of frescos depicting the voluptuous forms of the prostitutes who once inhabited its chambers. Every now and then, the camera will cut to one of these paintings to remind us of the inadequacy and folly of repression, these curvaceous painted ladies looking on at the nuns’ histrionics with what we take to be great amusement. There are naked statues too, which the nuns cover with dust-sheets, but as Sister Ruth runs gleefully from the palace to be with the object of her desire, we see one of these statues drop its veil completely. By this point in the story, everything else is slipping too, everything else is being laid bare.
As the film begins its third act, which will soon end in horror and in tragedy, we’re treated to a super-saturated montage of spring flowers and blasts of Easedale scores. We’re treated to the image of a magnolia tree, its branches near-indecent with their weight of flowers, which are rudely flushed and upright – and what are flowers if not the showiest of sex organs? What are plants if not outrageous exhibitionists? Powell and Pressburger aren’t simply informing cinema-goers of a change in the season, they’re waving great bouquets of genitalia at us. This isn’t just a magnolia tree, ladies and gentlemen, and those pinkish waxy goblets with their closely-guarded anthers and pistles are not blooms, but rather a cavalcade of up-for-it private parts. Nature is rudely unapologetic – colour is life! – but we’ll soon see too how colour will likewise augur death.
Should we be in any doubt that flowers are being used as part of the film’s symbolic schema as another substitute for the pleasures of the flesh, we need only look to the character of good old reliable Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), whose job it has been to prepare the grounds around the Palace in readiness for a vegetable garden. In another of the film’s ‘big moments’ that centre around smallish things, Sister Clodagh discovers Sister Phillipa has gone rogue. She has been seduced away from the proper productive pragmatism of her carrots and potatoes, preoccupied instead with the onanism of beauty, with the frills, folds, and sticky, honeyed stamens of a flower garden. Earlier in the film, Sister Clodagh notices Sister Phillipa staring out at the mountainous horizon in a fugue state. By way of explanation, Sister Phillipa complains ‘you can see too far’. She is becoming unbounded and her inner life newly expansive.
And there’s all the other richly Freudian stuff too; the great big horns that blow, and the big bell that rings with its heavy thudding clapper, while below it, Sister Ruth, who may already be mad and probably sick with some unspecified water-born virus, wraps her pale thin hands around the thick cord of the rope and tugs and tugs and tugs while wearing another of her secret transportive smiles…
In one extraordinarily candid scene, Sister Clodagh is spirited back into one of her memories by the distant sound of a barking dog that interrupts the silence of the chapel. She remembers taking part in a fox hunt, riding side-by-side with her beau across the open country. The music is orgasmic suddenly with the ululation of male and female voices. We likewise hear the thundering of hooves and the baying of the hounds. This is blood-sport, something primitive and savage reconfigured as civilised grown-up recreation, but make no mistake, this is primal, sweat-flecked exertion. Sure enough, when we cut back to the ever lovely Deborah Kerr, who we know very well has been remembering the way it felt to grip the musculature of her steed between her thighs, we see how her lips are glossier, her mouth parted. In truth, I’m always a little bit shocked by this sequence. It finds the prude in me, not least because Deborah Kerr is so very straight-laced, but also because the meaning is crystal clear; these are images coming to us direct from Sister Clodagh’s wank-bank.
… and with that observation, the silence of the lecture theatre prolongs unbearably, as I realise that this year, like every year, Black Narcissus is no one else’s favourite thing and all its lurid, febrile charms have gone unnoticed and under-appreciated. To be honest, I feel the same about wine. The label promises an avalanche of cherries and grace notes of elderflower and all I get is vinegar.
Black Narcissus is often categorised as a melodrama, which is short-hand for ‘a woman’s picture’, and is one of those descriptors that drips with disdain. Unlike ‘science-fiction’ or ‘the western’, melodrama it is not just a word for the collection of tropes most associated with a type of story, it’s a judgement on those tropes too. If something is described as melodramatic, the implication is the feelings on show lack authenticity, that they are performative and needy and attention-seeking. One of the very special things about Black Narcissus is the way it eschews authenticity for the heightened language of a dream. Famously, the film was shot almost entirely at Pinewood Studios, with sets, miniatures and glorious matte paintings by Walter Percy Day combining to produce a unique sense of place – or should that be ‘non-place’ or ‘unplace’, because we’re never in any doubt that the Palace of Mopu is a heady confection, an idea of a place, a fantasy of a location.
The otherworldliness of the Palace Of Mopu is core to the mechanics of its story, as the colourless Sisters of Saint Faith are over-stimulated by the Technicolour hyperrealism of their new surroundings. We’re told the water is effecting them, likewise the sound of the drums reaching up to them from the jungle below that robs them of their sleep. The wind refuses to calm, and, as Sister Phillipa complains, the air itself is ‘too clear’.
One of the most magical sequences in the film comes right at the beginning, as a disembodied camera takes us on a tour of the Palace of Mopu, while the disembodied voice of Mr Dean introduces us to the setting. Narration gives way to ethereal singing, a choir of ghosts, and always we hear the wind and see it animating faded slips of once-colourful fabric. We meet the caretaker of the palace, Angu Ayah, (May Hallat) and watch her dancing alone through the different rooms of the palace, reliving the heyday of her service, which we can only assume included re-arranging the scatter cushions after glorious orgies and giving zero-fucks about who was doing what to whom.
At one point, Mr Dean says of Angu Ayah, ‘She is the caretaker. She has always been the caretaker’ – or words to that effect. When I hear that I’m always reminded of the very final scene of Kubrick’s The Shining, when we realise Jack Torrance has ‘always been at the Overlook’, and the Palace of Mopu and the Overlook Hotel draw snugly together as grandiose mountain-top locations bedeviled by ghosts.
The lighting in Black Narcissus is extraordinary. It’s one of the principle reasons I liked showing this film to would-be animators because of the permission it gave them to use light and colour as boldly.
The film’s showiest moments come at its climax when the real world rationale for all those oranges, yellows and reds is sunset and sunrise. Symbolically, the colour transforms the rooms of the Palace of Mopu as arousal might change the saturation of human skin. There is a warming up, a blushing, a creeping of intensity mirrored by the pulse of the story, which by this point is quickening towards its climax. Here again we see the futility of repression – the impossibility of stoppering up the heat and hue of a natural phenomena.
So otherworldly does the film become, there is one scene that better resembles a painting from a book of fantasy art, or a forgotten still from Mike Hodge’s Flash Gordon (1980). We see Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean walking together close to edge of the vertiginous cliff that will later prove so deadly, and in the void beside them, we see a swirling nebula of blue and orange clouds. If you subscribe to Freud’s iceberg model of the human mind, with the conscious mind as the tip, the preconscious mind as the middle of the iceberg, and the unconscious mind as the greatest mass concealed away in the depths, it’s possible to view this phantasmagorical seascape as evidence that the rational world is sinking fast and soon to be submerged.
Less showy, but no less impressive, are all the many close-ups of the nuns’ faces themselves. Deborah Kerr is near-translucent in head shots of exquisite monochrome. Right at the opening of the film, we meet the strict mother superior who sets things in motion when she dispatches Sister Clodagh on her mission to Mopu. Her own close-ups are mesmerising to me and when seen on blu-ray, utterly pristine. It’s as if you could push your fingers through the thin membrane of the television screen and run them over the dry corrugation of her lines and wrinkles.
It’s easy to ‘queer’ Black Narcissus. Any film that pivots around a same sex community where the thought of ‘doing it’ is fraught will speak to LGBT audiences of one stripe or another, though it’s deeply unfashionable now to align gay experience with stories that end with tragedy. This is likely another reason why Black Narcissus always failed to resonate with my wonderfully gender and identity-fluid students, for whom the repression of self must seem like a terrific waste of time and energy.
It would be revisionism on my part to suggest with any authority that this film ‘spoke to me’ as a gay man before I knew I was a gay man. To be honest, the film never makes me identify with the suffering of the characters, but with their longing, which isn’t quite the same thing. I can always feel the huge effort it must be taking those nuns to ‘not’ look at Mr Dean, who will insist on walking about the former-brothel in the very shortest shorts and with his shirt wide open. The film presents his flesh as spectacle, objectifying him delightfully at every opportunity. Whenever Mr Dean sits himself down, we are required by dint of camera and of framing to look upon his shapely hairy thighs and the furriness of his forearms. His chest hair is thick and showy.
In one scene, Mr Dean makes his entrance wearing only his shorts and shoes and we’re treated to that rarest thing, a largely naked man surrounded by clothed women. The camera invites us to gawp at him – how can we not? – and the tension so created between us looking and the nuns ‘not looking’ is as palpable as it is perfect.
Black Narcissus is difficult to categorise – except when it’s not – and the film is at its most conventional at the end, when this peculiar movie manifests plainly as a horror film. The last ten minutes of Black Narcissus always feel incredibly contemporary to me because they read as a slasher flick. By now, all semblance of realism has been abandoned, as the colour red bleeds into the set and the Palace of Mopu reveals itself to be a gothic castle. Sister Clodagh is alone and imperiled. Spurned by Mr Dean, mad, bad Sister Ruth of the fuck-me lipstick and the red dress, has returned to the palace to murder her nemesis. The stage is set, and now the camera prowls and glides in exact choreography with Easedale’s music, and I’m always riveted. As a child, all of this would have made perfect sense to me – not why things had come to this moment, but how I was supposed to feel about it. I was afraid and I liked it.
But Black Narcissus isn’t a slasher movie. More accurately, it’s a haunted house movie, and when viewed in this way, the film is reassuringly familiar and not so peculiar after all. We have an old empty property with a bad reputation and a group of overly optimistic new tenants taking up residency there, ignoring tell-tale signs that all is not well, and which point to strange forces already at work. Then, one of the new tenants, who is presented from the outset as more susceptible than the others, slowly becomes the focus of the haunted house’s energy, and ultimately its vessel, and then there are monsters.
The horror genre is synonymous with physical metamorphosis, with bodies being invaded and changed, by werewolf bites or alien DNA, or by disfigurements or mutilations. When we talk of the history of horror, it is often a history of its monster-makers: Lon Chaney, Jack Pierce, Dick Smith… It’s a history too of technologies, of prosthetics, of animatronics, of glove-puppets smeared with KY jelly to look half-decent in front of the camera. I never hear anyone talking as readily about the transformation of Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus, but people should be, because it is genuinely spectacular and properly unsettling – and achieved simply, through make-up, lighting, framing and through Kathleen Byron’s unique physicality.
When we do catch glimpses of Sister Ruth in the film’s climatic stalking scenes, she is an angular thing of spite and shadows. At one point we see her scuttle away up some stairs with the awful speed of a furtive spider. She is inhuman now, and when finally she makes her entrance in readiness to push Sister Clodagh to her death, Sister Ruth has been whittled into something appallingly skeletal, her eyes ringed red and her hair curled like wet black worms against her white face. She is possessed. She is death, a wraith, a ghoul.
Notice I haven’t set out all the established caveats around this film; that it is absolutely a colonial fantasy that makes cartoons out of people of colour (at least two of which are white actors in blackface). In respect of its depiction of the indigenous people of the Himalayas, it has all the nuance, sensitivity and accuracy of an episode of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. The film’s association of female libido with mental dysfunction and hysteria continues a fine old tradition of monstering sexualised women, and similarly sub-dividing women into saints and sluts. Black Narcissus is awkward and creaky in all these ways certainly and before I screened the film for students, these remarks would be made, and following the screening, student-led symposia would follow on orientalism, the colonial gaze and feministic critique.
But still I wanted to show it, despite its flaws, and I continued to show it, despite its reception, because I genuinely think Black Narcissus is special. It’s an art film. It’s a weird film. It’s a beautiful film and, for all that creaks about it, it’s at times a startlingly modern film.
At the very end of the film, Sister Clodagh and the remaining nuns leave the Palace of Mopu. Sister Ruth is dead and the colonial project is over. Sister Clodagh looks up and we see the Palace vanish behind the clouds. It’s as if it was never there, the events that happened there consigned to a dream or nightmare. I’ve always felt this final shot confirms the directors’ intention that the reality of the film was always unstable or to be put into question; that we spent our time in a largely fantastical place.
I’m always left thinking about the Palace Of Mopu as the credits roll. Like some Freudian Brigadoon, I like to think it reappears whenever another group of repressed proselytizers need their foundational principles jangled and shaken. And Angu Ayah is still there, of course, old, yes, and witch-like certainly, but otherwise unageing, and dancing, and the wind, of course, the wind always blowing.