Black Narcissus (1947) (1947)
November 28, 2020 2:04 AM - Subscribe

On the invitation of a local potentate, a group of five Anglican nuns come to a valley above Darjeeling to establish a convent; for their purposes they are given use of an old mountaintop palace slash harem. Isolated, far from home, exposed to constant winds and distant views of the matte paintings "Naked Goddess" mountains, the sisters find themselves unraveling, perhaps, just a bit. Directed by Powell and Pressburger. While not as spicy and erotic now as it probably was in its day to young Catholics like Scorsese and Coppola, it is still a gorgeous and fine melodrama. Starring Deborah Kerr, the scorching gaze of Kathleen Byron, and unfortunately Jean Simmons among others in brownface.

I saw this on the Criterion streaming service.
Film critic Dave Kehr suggests that "Black Narcissus" should be taken with the historical context of Britain bidding farewell to their fading empire, and indeed that is an interesting point of view. But I like to view it as a film ahead of its time, daring enough to look puritanical figures that are in truth as frail as anyone; confronting their demons and the burdens of reality. It has all of the three central conflicts every story should have, man against the world, man against man, and man against himself.
-- Michael Mirasol,

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have come so close to executing a perfect fusion of all the elements of cinematic art—story, direction, performances and photography—that one wishes they had hit upon a theme at once less controversial and more appealing than that of "Black Narcissus." Not being familiar with Rumer Godden's novel, we don't know how closely the film adheres to its source. But that is of small consequence after all. What matters is that which they have imaged on celluloid, and that is an engrossing, provocative contemplation of the age-old conflict between the soul and the flesh."Black Narcissus" is a coldly intellectual morality drama tinged with a cynicism which has the effect of casting, as it were, a gratuitous reflection upon those who, regardless of sect, have forsaken worldly pleasures out of sheer religious devotion. ... 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. All of the uncertainties that beset the nuns, who were invited by a beneficent potentate to establish a convent-school and hospital for his primitive people, are attributed to the barbaric magnificence of the country which, coupled with the high altitude and the constant, unnerving singing of the wind, produces deleterious physical and mental effects."Black Narcissus" is so brilliantly performed and expertly executed in the telling, however, that it holds one completely in its spell.
-- NYT 1947.

During its 1947 release, Black Narcissus, despite being dogged by censorship in the United States, was seen primarily for its spectacle elements (being in color was in and of itself a selling point). Seventy-plus years later, however, the technical aspects – although impressive considering the special effects limitations of the era – represent a lukewarm reason to see the film and the storyline, which is only of limited interest, adds little in the way of a sweetener. Black Narcissus feels frustratingly incomplete, with character arcs that go nowhere and interpersonal interactions that feel scripted rather than authentic.

My lack of enthusiasm for Black Narcissus is not widely shared.
-- James Berardinelli,
posted by fleacircus (12 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Aside from Coppola and Scorsese, I have read about how this movie among others paved the way for zombie movies with Kathleen Byron's portrayal of Sister Ruth later in the movie with her pale face, red lips, and sinister eyes.

This movie is gorgeous. Jack Cardiff was a great cinematographer. I've always been a big Deborah Kerr fan. The Archers were at the top of their game. The only work of theirs that beats it in my mind is of course The Red Shoes. After building up the tension all movie, the chase scenes late had me on the edge of my seat.
posted by Fukiyama at 9:12 AM on November 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I haven't seen The Red Shoes yet, but it's on the list. The only other Archers things I've seen are The Spy In Black (not technically the Archers iirc) and A Matter of Life and Death. So this is like the first good P&P movie I've seen.

I also saw Lost Horizon recently so I'm pretty well stocked with Himalayan orientalism. But honestly I love the sets and painting landscapes in this movie, fake as they all are. Ayah scampering about in the beginning singing is really good too... the huge birdcage room...

There's a really funny shot late in the movie where Dean is in the blue room delivering some speech, and Sister Ruth slides into frame just staring at him ravenously.
posted by fleacircus at 11:17 AM on November 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Black Narcissus is definitely one of those movies that really requires from me effort to sit down and watch. It is a slow-burn at first. I DVRed it off TCM awhile ago and have been meaning to give it a fresh watch. So this thread is definitely kindling my desire to make the effort. Thank you. And do see The Red Shoes when you can.
posted by Fukiyama at 11:33 AM on November 28, 2020

I watched this on Criterion Channel awhile back, and was struck by the increasing presentation of Dean as a delicious tempting meal. Like, he'd often been in his little shorts with the long expanse of leg (highlighted by the small donkey he rides, his legs dragging the ground), but then an hour twelve into the movie he shows up and is now not only in his shorts but also now with no shirt, shot at a low angle, body hair and arm muscles etcetera, and the film is like TA DAAAA.

I appreciate the movie committing to that; I suppose I don't expect it as often from male filmmakers of that period, many of whom seemed allergic to men's bodies and just insisted that male characters are desirable simply because they exist (usually in a big boxy suit looking like a refrigerator). Kind of the epitome of Man As Subject (whereas only women are objects). If any storyline should understand a man as a catalyst for/object of intense desire, it's this one.
posted by theatro at 12:31 PM on November 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

The one nit that I had to pick when I saw this was that Sister Clodagh's "flashback memories" were pretty superfluous when she ends up just telling Dean her whole backstory later. But it still got under my skin.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:57 PM on November 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I love Powell and Pressburger's Technicolor movies so much and I feel like they don't get enough attention; I just want to go and live in those color palettes.
posted by octothorpe at 4:30 PM on November 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

the increasing presentation of Dean as a delicious tempting meal

Hah yes, and his entrance on a small horse is also hilarious. On the flipside I don't think they really sensualize the nuns either. Some people talk like this film is Body Heat, but to a modern eye I don't think it looks like it is working hard to evoke purely sensual aching and yearning.

I feel like, watching older movies, I have to adjust my mind to the implied context that people are horny all the time and always thinking about fucking no matter what they look like or how staid the presentation is.
posted by fleacircus at 5:50 PM on November 28, 2020

Never saw the movie, but I liked the book -- although I think my favorite Rumer Godden is "An Episode of Sparrows".
posted by kyrademon at 5:17 AM on November 29, 2020

There's apparently a remake on FX/Hulu that's just OK.
posted by octothorpe at 9:20 AM on November 29, 2020

I watched this when I was really young and the visuals were stunning; rich, saturated and fantastical. I was too young to appreciate the plot with its theme of repression and the adults going crazy. The clips of the remake do not look visually enticing and I am not moved to try but instead watch the original in its rich, mad, intense glory.
posted by jadepearl at 2:07 PM on November 29, 2020

My favorite Rumer Godden was "The Peacock Spring". I think I read Black Narcissus right afterwards - the nuns couldn't hold a candle to dreamy Ravi Bhattacharya in my 13-year-old mind.

I'll seek this movie out and come back with something more intelligent to say. I'm glad to be reminded of this!
posted by Gray Duck at 7:27 PM on November 29, 2020

In the USA I can watch this right now on HBO Max.
posted by seasparrow at 10:31 PM on November 29, 2020

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