Saturday, 8 May 2010

Black Narcissus (1947)

Along with "Brief Encounter" and "Kind Heart and Coronets", "Black Narcissus" is my favourite British classic film. Like those two it's uniquely British in feel and subject matter (emotional repression, like "Brief Encounter"). It also has that magnificent cold Technicolor palette so characteristic of this side of the Atlantic which I never could account for (probably the natural light, so different from the Californian sun). A Powell and Pressburger collaboration, beautifully shot by Jack Cardiff and starring Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, it follows a group of nuns settling a convent in a Himalayan hill top, in what used to a harem. The atmosphere of the building, the pure air and the constant wind tear down the nuns' defences and leave them prey of their own desires.
This is a film about repressed desires and dreams and what happens when your present is faced again with past desires. Several times through the film one or the other of nuns mention that they have been thinking of something they had forgotten. In the case of Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh we even see that past in flashbacks. She's the young mother superior of the group, the youngest ever. When she is assigned the task of leading this group of nuns at the beginning of the film her face betrays her pride, a rare crack in her perfect fa├žade. Among the nuns under her supervision is Kathleen Byron's Sister Ruth (the de facto second lead despite her 6th or 7th billing). As the film starts she's described as "ill". The two women are the two sides of the same coin - one so repressed that she's almost not human, the other equally repressed but about to explode. The two women actually resemble each other when they are in their habits, and I couldn't left wondering if that was just a coincidence.

Sister Ruth finally explodes when the only white man in sight appears. Clearly treated as a sex-object (he wears shorts that almost look like hot pants and gratuitously exhibits his bare chest to the nuns) he is the catalyst of Sister Ruth's rebellion - giving in to her desires. At this stage we realise that her "illness" has been sexual frustration and now she's ready to give in. And her most daring weapon is lipstick, in one of the best sequences of the film. They reminded of Gene Tierney's red lips in "Leave Her to Heaven".
Key in showing all this is Jack Cardiff's cinematography. With light and colour he manages to show the beauty and remoteness of the hill top and most important the emotions of nuns. In particular, he transfigures Kathleen Byron's face to reveal the beast that possesses her - a quasi-madness in the first great confrontation with Kerr; the black and white contrast in the second and that amazing final sequence. He won a well deserved Oscar, as did Alfred Junge for the amazing art direction. The film was mostly shot at Pinewood but you'd never know, and it's through the work of those two men, along that of matte painter Walter Percy Day, that it doesn't occur to you that you never left the studio set.

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