Saturday, April 7, 2012

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | Black Narcissus

the world comes thrusting in behind
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (screenplay, based on the book by Rumer Godden and directors) Black Narcissus / 1947

The British were tired of seeing war pictures when Black Narcissus suddenly appeared upon the screen. And having just gone through the privations of the war, there seemed to be no better tonic than this larger than life, richly hued fable about the Himalayas, which coincided with Britain's leaving India and the recognition that the British Empire had finally crumbled.

     It's notable that Powell and Pressburger's interpretation of a Rumer Godden Indian romance is the polar opposite of Renoir's only four years later. For Renoir there was no choice but to film in India, creating, as I suggest below, almost a travelogue of that country. The River is all a bathe with golds and blues and greens, mostly natural colors. Powell and Pressburger, on the other hand, surprised their cinematographer and editors by announcing they would shoot their film entirely in England. The great landscapes of the film are paintings on glass, the palace into which the nuns move is a miniature. The exotic, hand-painted rooms are a product of the Pinewood Studios. The natives are played by local dock workers.

    Yet, for all that—perhaps because of it—one has the feeling after seeing Black Narcissus of having gone to one of the most isolated and exotic spots on the planet. Renoir's India, for all of its "truthfulness," seems far tamer and more homey than the wind-ridden heights of Mopu into which five nuns, a young strutting male "peacock," a lusting teenage girl, a loony housekeeper, and the dashingly cynical agent Mr. Dean gather, sparking long-lost desires and simmering histrionics.

     A member of an Anglican order of nuns whose mission is primarily to teach and nurse girls and women, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is ordered to take four other nuns into the Palace of Mopu, previously used as a house for the local Indian General's wives, located on a Himalayan mountain top. The natives live below, unable to bear the strong winds and rains of the Palace, a fortress previously abandoned by an order of religious brothers. With little else but determination and gut, Sister Clodagh battles the prejudices of her own peers, the skeptical and often practical criticisms of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the dizzying insanity of the harridan caretaker (May Hallatt), and the elements as she attempts to maintain order and spiritual values in a world that is literally and endlessly falling apart.

     Suffering from a malady described as Darjeeling tummy, with white sores appearing upon their arms, effected by mountain light-headedness, the nuns attempt to teach, nurse, garden, and pray with little effect. Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) works as hard as she can, but falls prey to long-lost memories, culling up images she has supposed she has long ago buried. Instead of planting beans, potatoes, cabbage and other products that might sustain the order, she cannot resist filling the small patches of palace soil with numerous varieties of flowers. Already ailing before she has come to the order, the somewhat paranoid Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) becomes sicker, imagining that her fellow nuns, particularly Sister Clodagh, are plotting against her. The nurse, Sister Briony (Judith Furse) asks to be sent away to another convent.

      Even for the determined Mother Superior, Clodagh, the past—life before her vocation to God and the Church—comes creeping into her daily endeavors. As she later describes it to Mr. Dean, "the world comes thrusting in behind." Perhaps it is the air, the howling wind, the strangeness of the natives' lives, or just the sexual aroma of the sensual male body of Mr. Dean—dressed by the costumers in as little clothing as possible throughout the film—or a combination of all of these, it does not matter: the nuns are unable to regain their composure.

     Having fallen in love with Mr. Dean, Sister Ruth refuses to take her final vows, ordering the dress in which she suddenly appears in one of the film's last scenes. Rushing to Dean's small cottage, she enters just as he has gone out, she picking up personal apertures of his life (his pipe, etc.) to sniff in the aroma in which she hopes she will soon be enveloped. Upon returning, Dean assures her that he is not in love with her, is not, he insists, in love with anyone, suggesting she return to the palace or be accompanied to Darjeeling. Rejection by the only person she has thought cared about her can only result in madness.

     Returning to Mopu, she attempts to push Sister Clodagh over the wall into the valley below, but as in many such a melodrama, ends up falling to her own death.

     Throughout this overwrought psychological drama, cinematographer Jack Cardiff under the obviously careful direction of Powell, creates a series of scenes in which the shadows and patterns of windows, doorways, walls, fans, and other objects interfere with and color the audience's perceptions. Often using his youngest character, the translator Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley, Jr.), as the focus of observation, the director shuttles his adult figures about as they rush from room to room, dance, and stridently push forward. These are people who at every turn are struggling to embrace or, more often, to withhold, and the tensions between their actions both with others and within themselves spins Black Narcissus, almost like a top, into a whirlwind of acted out and subdued passions.

     Powell also uses Brian Easdale's music to great effect, playing out on horns and drums incessant rhythms that at times almost make the film's viewers think they might have gotten lost in an African jungle instead of the Indian Himalayas. Hokey, yes, but effective nonetheless. This is after all melodrama in the manner of what Douglas Sirk and Nicolas Ray would create in the US a few years later.

     Finally, despite the over bright daytime skies, Black Narcissus might be described as a film that is satiated in black and red. Although these nuns are dressed in white, their habits are often splattered with blood, their hems covered with mud, and their rooms haunted with dark shadows. One of the most powerful scenes of the film occurs after Sister Ruth has abandoned of her vocation, her adversary, Sister Clodagh offering to sit out the night with her in prayer and contemplation, Ruth dressed in her store-bought red dress, applying bright red lipstick to her previously pale lips. As the Mother Superior drifts off into sleep, so does her charge dart away in escape.

      When Ruth later returns to the Palace, she comes from the same room, her face now stripped of any makeup, looking paler than death itself, with the intent of murder on her mind. She is as good a dead already, the act simply following what the image has already revealed to us. And with that death, we comprehend that the convent must also die, the nuns—just as the British forces had—leaving India behind. As the caravan of survivors move forward, so, as Dean has predicted, the rains begin to fall, suggesting the release of pent up sorrow for these women's thwarted lives.

      In short, Powell's and Pressburger's Black Narcissus is not that very different from their later movies The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffman, and even their final notorious masterpiece, Peeping Tom, incorporating movement, music, and image to convey larger-than-life psychological situations, conveying worlds in which what the characters say matters less than the movement of their bodies and the rhythms of their lives.

Los Angeles, April 6, 2012

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