Black Narcissus (1947): Nuns in Heat – in Glorious Technicolour!
You know what I’d like for Christmas? Not in a real sense – I’m happy with cash this year, and if you want to contribute, drop me a line & I’ll give you my PO Box details. I mean in a “things from movies that haven’t been invented yet” kind of sense.
I’d like one of those 3D virtual reality sunbed things from Minority Report, and use it to watch old Powell & Pressburger extravanganzas.
I”d stick on Black Narcissus and stand around in an ancient pleasure palace, looking dashing while two hot nuns lust after me, trying to keep my trousers on. Then I’d come out with a ravishing technicolor tan.
If you haven’t seen Black Narcissus before, I suppose that introduction might make it sound more appealing than the standard blurb – a band of Anglican nuns are dispatched to an outpost deep in the Himalayas to set up a school and hospital for the natives.
The woman in charge is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), a stern and ambitious Sister Superior. She wants the post, although her Mother Superior has doubts about her ability. The location for this new convent is an old palace, which many years before used to house a harem. More recently, some monks also attempted to convert it to a monastery, perched far above the village and forest on a sheer cliff face.
The sisters’ contact in the area is a British agent, Mr Dean (David Farrar), a dishy and irreverent presence. He singles out Sister Clodagh with his suggestive, innuendo-laden comments, and his arrogance and lack of respect soon gets her hot under the habit.
The old palace, with it’s erotic paintings and peculiar atmosphere, soon has a queer effect on the nuns. This is most evident in Clodagh, and the poorly Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who develops a fierce attraction to the brash Mr Dean.
It soon turns out that Clodagh isn’t as cold and pious as she first seems, and perhaps it’s the mountain air, but her mind starts to wander during prayer. She also secretly starts to feel a bit giddy about the British agent.
Meanwhile, the natives aren’t too keen on visiting the nuns for either their education or their welfare – it is revealed the local General is paying the villagers to visit.
Dean also lumbers them with a local piece of jailbait, Kanchi (Jean Simmons) hoping the nun’s influence will be beneficial to her, and to stop her mooning around his house making eyes at him.
All this comes to a crescendo when Sister Ruth, who turns out to be mentally frail as well as physically, throws herself at Mr Dean. She is disgraced, and begins a descent into murderous insanity…
Black Narcissus is one of a hat trick of technicolor masterpieces by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, along with A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. All three are elevated by Jack Cardiff’s sumptuous cinematography, and curiously for films almost universally regarded as masterpieces, all three are far from perfect.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946), a fantastical and warm-hearted romance about a young WWII pilot who bails out of his craft without a parachute and survives, only to be summoned to heaven on the basis of a celestial clerical error, is virtually flawless until the final courtroom scene. Then it bizarrely degenerates into a Brits vs Yanks sermon.
The Red Shoes , the tale of a talented ballerina who is destined to suffer the same fate as the character she portrays, is rather stiff and old fashioned until it’s stunning ballet sequence. Then everything is forgotten and it becomes the best thing you’ve ever seen.
Black Narcissus suffers from some rather muddled characterization, and it’s not always clear who’s who or what their motives are. Clodagh and Ruth are difficult to tell apart on first viewing, because both actresses are facially quite similar when smothered by a habit.
However, Black Narcissus hangs together better as a narrative, because it’s not as top- or bottom-heavy as the other two. It’s also an easier watch for modern audiences; although it is variously described as an adventure, romance, or a melodrama, the thing it resembles most in structure is a horror movie.
There’s the old haunted house on the hill, although it’s never explicitly made clear whether Mopu is actually haunted, or whether it’s one of those places people bring their own ghosts.
There is the story of the monks, whose previous attempt to inhabit the palace ended in failure. This is a classic touch of foreshadowing most familiar to fans of horror films.
Think of the story of Grady, the axe murdering former caretaker of the Overlook in The Shining; the derelict spaceship full of eggs in Alien; or the Norwegian base in The Thing. Bad things have happened in this place, so chances are, bad things are going to happen again…
Sister Ruth’s final, desperate, unhinged pursuit of Dean and Sister Clodagh resemble something out of a 80’s or 90’s psycho-thriller, and the final reel is full of suspense as murderous Ruth stalks her unwitting love rival.
Also adding to the tension is the tangible erotic charge, which is largely thanks to Jack Cardiff’s sublime cinematography, particularly the use of color and shade.
When we first see Clodagh, it is in close up. A pale white face in a ghostly white habit, harsh eyes and tight white lips. Our first blast of color is on our first visit to the palace – a room filled with empty gilded cages, and a first glimpse of the General, resplendent in silks, preening himself by a mirror in a bright blue room.
A subplot involving Kanchi falling romantically for a young prince doesn’t really add much, apart from more eroticism. On Kanchi’s first time alone in the palace, she is seen dancing sensually by herself; she spends most of her time crawling around on hands and knees trying to get the prince’s attention. And in one unfortunate moment, she appears to be moving in to give him a blowjob.
This can’t have been by accident, given how meticulous and gifted these filmmakers were. They had oral sex back in 1947, so they must have realized it looked like she was going to nosh him off in that scene.
Aside from a few duff moments, Black Narcissus is thoroughly absorbing and at times transcendent, mainly due to the miraculous work of Cardiff and the production team. Some images from Black Narcissus are indelibly imprinted on my mind – most notably Sister Clodagh’s walk across the windswept courtyard to ring out the noon bell on the cliff’s edge for the first time.
It’s an old cliche, but they truly don’t make films like this any more. The atmosphere of lush exoticism is thick in every frame, and the ingenious model work and matte paintings create a hyper-real setting for the drama.
And because they don’t make them like this anymore, you deserve to watch it on the biggest screen possible. Perhaps invite some close friends round and have a naked Black Narcissus party.
Or instead, until they finally invent Minority Report-style 3D virtual reality sunbeds, perhaps you could petition your nearest IMAX cinema to give you a private screening of this classic? That would be the perfect way to see it…