by Brandon Colvin
Of all the greatest “color” films – those cinematographically-immaculate demonstrations of chromatic control – one stands above the rest in its mastery of expressive hues. Flawlessly photographed and delicately designed, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946) is a startling demonstration of colorfully cohesive narration and tone, from its costuming to its sets to its breathtaking matte effects. Utilizing a bold palette that does not shy away from geographical grandeur or ethereal atmospherics, The Archers’ film – their best, along with The Red Shoes (1948) – is undeniably gorgeous from first frame to last. Aided by the unparalleled craftsmanship of their frequent Pinewood Studios collaborators – legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff and influential production designer Alfred Junge (both of whom justly won Oscars for their work on Black Narcissus) – Powell and Pressburger’s film boasts stunning visuals, but is not merely a work of superficial spectacle; the film’s psychologically dense narrative reflects Hitchcockian levels of tension and complexity, perhaps even influencing the subsequent work of the Master of Suspense himself, while adhering to a melodramatic mode reminiscent of Douglas Sirk at his most feverishly expressionistic.
Closely adapted by Powell and Pressburger from Rumer Godden’s best-selling 1939 novel of the same name, Black Narcissus takes place in Godden’s signature setting: British-occupied India, specifically, the Himalayan region near Darjeeling, where a group of Anglican nuns naively seeks to endow the locals with a Westernized school and hospital. Led by the young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, at her best), a handful of nuns, including the maniacally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), initiates the project, taking the Young General (Sabu), a regional aristocrat, under their collective wing. Cultural conflicts quickly create strife between the nuns and the locals, however, whose religious ideal is embodied by the stoic mysticism of a silent holy man (the Young General’s uncle) rather than the intrusive ethnocentrism of the Anglicans.
Further complicating matters, Sister Clodagh becomes oddly attracted to the generally repulsive Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an alcoholic atheist groundskeeper with lascivious intent, causing her to confront her repressed romantic inclinations, particularly in the form of flashbacks (which feature Kerr at her most ravishing) to the failed courtship that forced her into the nunnery. Not only does this sensual temptation lurk like a specter in the shadowy, gothic corridors of their Himalayan convent, it seems to demonically possess the disturbed Sister Ruth, plunging her into the throes of psychotically violent jealousy while seeking to claim Mr. Dean for herself. Black Narcissus becomes not only a critical commentary on imperialist arrogance, but also a dreamlike, expressionistic narrative of the “return of the repressed” and the overpowering sexual subconscious – an untamable desire, impervious even to the rigorous discipline of divine duty. It is no surprise, then, that Powell declared Black Narcissus the most erotic film The Archers ever made.
The film’s scintillating sensuality is certainly not limited to its thematic content. Black Narcissus’ approach to color and design is rooted in a resolutely maximalist style, externalizing and celebrating the unbridled sensory extravagance buried within its outwardly ascetic characters. The painterly detail and lush imagery displayed in Cardiff and Junge’s work, approached only by that of Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1964) or Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) or Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), is astonishing and predates the comparable efforts of those 60s masterpieces by two decades – eons in terms of film technology and technique. Inspired by the vibrant paintings of Vermeer, Cardiff and Junge’s palette is full of stark whites and grays, deep blues and greens, purple and orange-tinted lighting, and kaleidoscopically-brilliant traditional Indian garments and interiors. Working in Technicolor, but without ‘Scope, Cardiff’s cinematography beautifully captures Junge’s glass mattes and blown-up, pastel-chalked landscape paintings to depict an uncanny studio-built sense of Himalayan majesty.
The artificiality of Black Narcissus’ world accentuates the surreal, psychosexual interiority explored throughout the narrative, appropriating landscape and architecture by transforming them into symbolist playgrounds. The matte mountains are crafted to evoke the sublime spiritual abyss which Sisters Clodagh and Ruth teeter over, both figuratively and, later, literally, in a climactic scene bearing a remarkable resemblance to the conclusion of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). An eerily-lit artificial wood, glazed in ghastly orange, attains metaphorical significance when the manic Sister Ruth, her face rouged and eyes wild, stumbles through it en route to Mr. Dean’s abode, wandering through the dark forest of her own mind. Powell and Pressburger are at their most expressionistic in Black Narcissus, employing emotionally-charged artifice without the diegetic mediation of the stage, which distances the “real” from the artificial in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In Black Narcissus, the two are inseparably fused – reality and artificiality interlocked in a crisp, vibrant cinematic environment, dripping with color and oozing the unreal in a way analogous to Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955).
It is with the latter film’s concluding frames that the final shot of Black Narcissus shares a certain kinship. In Sirk’s film, the closing image is of a lone deer, standing on a studio-crafted patch of forest beyond a blue-tinted, frosted window as huge imitation snowflakes float down to the falsely snowy ground. The image is a final self-reflexive suggestion of All That Heaven Allows’ constructed nature, its recognition of its own falseness, a fact underscored by the isolated actuality of the deer, surrounded by fakery and obvious unreality. In the last shot of Black Narcissus, this scheme is inverted, but a similar effect is achieved. As Sister Clodagh and the defeated nuns somberly flee their Himalayan environs astride miniature horses, studio rain begins to trickle, dropping on leaves in one of the only non-studio locations in the film before building to a fake downpour, blurring and hazing the nuns’ retreat through the real surroundings. The real and the artificial are merged in the film’s final moments, the sheets of false rain representing the subsuming of the real under the power of the film’s design and artifice, its expressionistic bombast flourishing, being absorbed into every celluloid particle like the wash of rain. Indeed, it is impossible for the viewer of Powell, Pressburger, Cardiff, and Junge’s masterwork to avoid succumbing to the same incredible spectacle of color and craft, a visual smorgasbord of Technicolor, mattes, and shadows as striking today as it must have been over 60 years ago.