Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger deliver one of their finest collaborations in the exotic melodrama of Black Narcissus (1947), which tells the story of five British nuns who travel to the remote Himalayas to found a convent. Gorgeous scenery provides a provocative backdrop for strong, complex performances from the leads, including Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, and Kathleen Byron, with support from Flora Robson, Sabu, and teenage beauty Jean Simmons. Like a delirious fever dream, the film moves back and forth between sense and madness, quiet and chaos, past and present; it lures the viewer in with its beauty but ultimately unnerves with the power of its most memorable scenes.

Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clodagh, who leads the small group on their mission to start a convent in the mountains at the invitation of a Himalayan general (Esmond Knight). There they encounter the skeptical British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), who gives them slim odds of success, as well as the old general's intellectually curious heir (Sabu). The sisters open a school and a medical dispensary, but their position in the community is tenuous at best, with crisis just around the corner. The sisters also struggle with internal strife and the psychological turmoil that results from their residence in a strange, desolate place far from home.

The theme here is how things fall apart, how reason and fortitude fail in spite of the most determined effort to maintain them. From the moment the Mother Superior gives Sister Clodagh her assignment, the mission has an air of doom, but that presentiment only grows stronger when the nuns arrive in their new abode. The convent's quarters were once the home of a previous general's harem; everywhere the nuns confront signs of a luxurious, erotic past, the very opposite of all they have sought to embrace in their chaste, well-ordered lives. Surrounded by the magnificent isolation of the Himalayas, the nuns fight a losing battle against the unfamiliar atmosphere. The Romantic experience of the sublime stirs long buried emotions in the sisters' hearts until loneliness and longing overwhelm them, especially the jealous, unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Mild Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the convent's gardener, weeps over her past and plants flowers instead of produce, while Sister Clodagh succumbs to memories of the lost girlish love that drove her to become a nun. The result is a climactic collapse of sanity that teeters on the very edge of horror.

Black Narcissus relies heavily on Orientalist attitudes for its drama, which is not surprising in a British film from the 1940s, but the dated elements don't undermine the ultimate effect. This is by no means the first work of fiction to imagine the East as a place of strange temptations and tribulation; E.M. Forster's 1924 novel, A Passage to India, is another significant example of the type, as are the works of Rudyard Kipling. Several white actors get cast as Asians, most notably May Hallatt as the very irritating Ayah and Jean Simmons as the silent temptress Kanchi. The British characters view the natives as childlike, ignorant, and unpredictable, and the plot more or less bears out their opinion even as it ironically reveals that the Europeans can be irrational and dangerous, too. Sabu's sweet, sympathetic performance as the young general helps to counter some of those issues, and he looks glorious in his lavishly decorated costumes. If the young general falls for the charms of Kanchi, it's not really his fault, since she works hard to attract his attention, and she really is quite lovely. 

Two Oscar wins for Jack Cardiff's gorgeous cinematography and Alfred Junge's art direction highlight the sheer beauty of Black Narcissus. For more from Powell and Pressburger, see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), and The Red Shoes (1948). Catch Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Jungle Book (1942); the Indian actor became a star in his early teens but died tragically young at the age of 39. Deborah Kerr has another exotic adventure in The King and I (1956), plays a nun again in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), and gets to unravel in a more Gothic atmosphere in The Innocents (1961). Although Black Narcissus features Kathleen Byron's most memorable performance, you can also see her in Powell and Pressburger's Stairway to Heaven (1946) and Hour of Glory (1949) as well as much later movies like Emma (1996), Les Miserables (1998), and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

The Criterion Collection offers excellent editions of Black Narcissus on both Blu-ray and DVD.