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Largely unseen until the laser revolution of the 1980's, and the efforts of Martin Scorsese, the work of Powell and Pressburger has finally taken its place at the top of great British filmmaking. Far from their most celebrated film, Black Narcissus may just be their best. At the top of their craft and the height of their creative powers, it is a sensual, disturbing, weird, magical and magnificent movie. Its spell is not easily described.
A group of nuns moves into a castle-like eyrie on a mountain in Northern India to open a school and a clinic. The inexperienced Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) manages as best she can in a situation where nobody can be made to take their mission seriously. The natives are paid to come to school. The housekeeper (May Hallatt) is a weird crone who revels in the house's obscene past life as a hareem. The local English agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) predicts failure, with an unwelcome and sarcastic attitude. Love and devotion seem to have no weapons to counter the life-force of the region, which worships other gods and moral values. Sister Clodagh takes in a wayward orphan (an adolescent, sensual Jean Simmons) and a cheerful prince (Sabu), a combination that anyone can see will lead to disaster. All of the sisters are warped by the lush worldliness of the mountain, even the faithful Sister Phillippa (Flora Robson), who is driven by an undefinable force to plant flowers instead of vegetables. Sister Clodagh herself is beset by bitter memories of the secular life she left behind. And the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is driven mad by Clodagh's unyielding hostility, and her own personal demons.
Black Narcissus is a challenging movie that feeds the eye and stimulates the senses. Directed with Powell and Pressburger's noted clarity and graphic elegance, everything about its story, characters and themes is unpredictable. The undefined force that assails the Nuns is expressed only in visual terms - the mystical beauty of their new home, the 'realness' of nature, loosens their grip on their abstract, abstemious, life-denying lifestyle. Their devotion to Christianity seems petty beside the convictions of the local wise man, who sits eternally motionless and silent as if in the confidence of older, wiser gods. Not only are their individual faiths tested, but the Nuns' ability to function is impaired by the very contradiction of the open air and space, which, to paraphrase Francis Coppola, seems to put the zap on their brains. Clodagh bullies her charges, and develops a self-denied crush on Mr. Dean. Instead of feeding her Sisters, Fillipa ends up cultivating flowers. The optimistic Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) becomes a sentimental hysteric. And the 'sick' Sister Ruth turns her low self esteem and rage against herself.
This doesn't even begin to convey the complexity in Black Narcissus, much of which is beautifully communicated through images and sound. Powell and Pressburger experimented with a musical form in one climactic passage, building images to the rising fervor of a pre-composed musical score. (It's so successful, it encouraged them to proceed from Narcissus directly to their hyper-sensual musical feast The Red Shoes.) The direction owes little to anything seen before; Kanchi's seductive dance in one of the curious rooms of the convent is shown in just a few extremely expressive shots, yet conveys a unique exoticism.
Older British movies (even many new ones) are as appallingly blind as American films to politics and the Third World, a tradition that Powell and Pressburger happily stay entirely outside. David Farrar's Mr. Dean represents an English presence that at first seems corrupt, until we understand that he sees the Indian culture for what it is, and has no designs on Sisters Coldagh or Ruth. Only then do we realize, like Dean, that India is a mystery in which Englanders can never directly participate. A dignified withdrawal is the best that can be hoped for.
Some recent Savant reading unearthed the tale of English filmmakers Powell, Carol Reed and David Lean watching convoy-shipped rare prints of American movies during World War 2, bicycling one of their favorites, The Seventh Victim, to screenings in a bombed-out London. This makes Savant want to connect Black Narcissus to the films of Val Lewton, particularly his I Walked With a Zombie. Before your eyeballs roll violently, think on the following: A sensual, distracting tropical ambiance created entirely in the studio, with seductive tracking shots and lighting effects that create a palpable feeling of fantasy. An interpersonal story that pits the political and religious ideologies of individuals against one another, in a land where modern Western ideas sit uneasily atop incompatible ancient beliefs and traditions, some of which are dangerous. The story is told less through action than (this right from the Black Narcissus DVD notes) 'a succession of small incidents and casual encounters' - precisely the way Joel Siegel described Lewton's narrative style in The Seventh Victim. Very similar to the zombie product of passion and repression in Zombie, Sister Ruth in Narcissus is transformed into a zombie-like harpy, a 'worldly woman' in a red dress and red lipstick, eyes blazing and hair akimbo, like a fury. If this comparison does nothing for the appreciation of Narcissus, it will hopefully elevate the genre-bound graces of the Lewton and Tourneur's wonderful Zombie movie.
In the late '70s Powell was a Filmmaker in Residence at Coppola's short-lived Zoetrope studios in Hollywood. Savant cut an outside film in a rented room there during the making of One From the Heart and saw lots of Gene Kelly helping Francis with his dance numbers, but never Powell. Matte painter friend Rocco Gioffre did run into the elderly gentleman in an elevator, and described him as a short, happy, redfaced man with a boyish attitude, who whistled the 'I want to be a sailor' theme from Thief of Bagdad. Wow.
The old laserdisc of Black Narcissus was a standout in the Criterion library, but the added extras on the new DVD are even better. With the obvious enthusiastic input of Powell widow and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and Powell revivalist Martin Scorsese, Craig McCall's documentary Painting with Light interviews both Jack Cardiff and his Technicolor camera, and shows the sheer artistry and inventiveness of the 'look' of Black Narcissus, whose convincing Himalayan vistas were accomplished without modern technology. The models, matte paintings and painted cycloramic views explained in this great docu aren't trying to outdo other films in a high-tech ratrace, and they aren't even trying to look real. They express a hightened reality that pulls psychological and even mystical qualities from the characters, and paints them on the screen for us to experience too.
On the commentary, Scorsese guides a frail-sounding Powell through an examination of the film. Powell is sometimes hard to understand, but what he says is as priceless as if that Holy Man on the mountain decided to talk. The still galleries contain evidence of interesting-looking cut scenes. Like any description, the trailer cannot begin to convey the non-Hollywood specialness of this movie. The rest of the essays and text prompts on the disc are equally authoritative and compelling. Black Narcissus is placed in the best possible light with this presentation.
This is what Criterion does best. Their DVD of Black Narcissus is sensational cinema.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Black Narcissus rates:
Movie: Excellent, and Beyond
Supplements: Commentary with Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese, Painting With Light, a docu on the photography of Black Narcissus and Jack Cardiff, production stills, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 27, 2001
Savant's review of the Michael Powell chiller,