Blowin' Your Mind

film 1 of 5

Black Narcissus

Draft Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

Superlatives are dangerous & even useless, but seriously: was there ever a more beautifully shot, more beautifully designed film than this? It’s not just flash though, or mere aestheticism—the beauty is all integral to theme, characterization and narrative;

Black Narcissus starts with a straight, startling Vermeer quote of a window-lit nun (ordered, cloistered, delicate; impermanent & even unnatural beauty); it goes on to essay the entire convent with similarly pale, discreet, chaste images; that setting and sensibility are then contrasted with the obscenely colourful Himalayas, first envisioned over the reading/narration of Mr. Dean’s letter, then in the (entirely, astonishingly studio built) Mountains Themselves, and in the wild, disordered life that goes on beneath them;

The rest of the story is played out in this vivid alien setting, making a two-worlds conflict that will be played out through the duration of the film, and on a number of levels; it’s visual: all those superb textures, pools of light in fields of shadow, deep focus and multiple planes of action beautifully staged and distributed; it’s political/ colonial: the English speaking native boy blithely teaches the local children the words for various imperialist weapons, while love-mad, Habit-repudiating Sister Ruth looks mooningly out the window; it’s definitely, profoundly theological and philosophical: the local holy man may be somewhat objectified, or treated quaintly, but he also represents a mysterious religious essence which Anglican theology and Western proselytizing can’t comprehend or contain;

The General, native owner of the nun’s vast facility, plays at pro-British sentiment, at the same time that he’s utterly untouched by it; he pays people to attend the nuns’ classes, suggesting that all this is coercion and must fail: it does, and quite spectacularly;

But what empathy, what kindliness on the way to that apocalypse! So many stunning images, so many exquisite exchanges, with an extended Christmas sequence standing foremost among them, standing in fact as one world cinema’s most glorious accomplishments:

… the tiny enclave gathers in the Himalayan winter night to sing praises to Christ and his humble advent, Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh thinks of her Irish homeland in a linked series of flashbacks so dazzling in their green-grassed, red-haired romanticism that her decision to become a nun starts to seem not so much a great sacrifice as a great crime; spurring her reverie is the beautiful baritone voice of the handsome Mr. Dean; the little general (Sabu, as never before utilized in film) brings her back to the present by congratulating her on the birth of her Saviour; she gently rebukes him for being over-familiar, and then Mr. Dean, who not only sings so beautifully, but also a bit drunkenly, rebukes her in turn for cloistering Jesus, when he belongs with drunkards and servant girls …

This is the beginning of the end: Sis. Clodagh turns angrily on Mr. Dean and in doing so, turns not only from her natural instincts but from her best interests as well; at this point Sis. Ruth, sick with ambivalence about her mission, & with desire for Mr. Dean, pitches right over the edge—literally!

Black Narcissus now begins its properly celebrated,virtuosically integrated and executed, practically symphonic recapitulation and extended climax, ending in a pitched physical confrontation that rivals, that surpasses Hitchcock; after that definite in an astonishing, lengthy,  , the keep is a Shining-like  symbolic space, a character in itself, where life intensifies and people go nuts,

Black Narcissus, from Rumer Godden’s novel of course, obviously resembles the big E.M. Forster-repression works, especially A Passage to India, the film is also strongly linked with the period in which the Empire’s ending and people try to understand why, the world is getting bigger and people are try to get a grasp on it, and the sensitive start to wonder whether their God and Country absolutes are as true and absolute as they thought; the little general says he uses the eponymous scent because it is common only to smell of one’s self, and yet in going and savouring other scents the nuns in the convent all fail–is this because the third world is being idealized and Europe just can’t get it, or because in trying to savour while still imposing European ingredients (church, government) failure is inevitable?–though of course the general bought the perfume in London and is open to European experience, just as he is sensitive to his own; this turns into a (misogynist?) horror movie, as the demon nun starts to lurk, but though the swerve may jar, the jar is lots of fun–this woman is pretty scary, an impression triumphally achieved, as with everything else here, by visual means.