Cinematic Katzenjammer Not So Sectret Santa: Black Narcissus (1947)

Whenever you volunteer to participate in a Secret Santa Exchange, you run the risk of displeasing the person that you choose from the pool. Even worse, you could be subjected to a gift from someone that does not know you well and dumps a gift on you that might only be appropriate for a White Elephant party exchange. When you make it a movie review exchange, the danger is heightened, after all, someone can’t just shrug “Thanks” and put the gift aside and ignore it. Here, you have to live with the gift for a while. A two hour film takes up that much time, if you are ordering it on line you may be paying for the privilege of watching your gift. Then you have to figure out what to say about it. If you hate it, that might offend someone who only was trying to share something they love and instead of discovering another friend online, you have created an enemy. All the same, with a film review/swap, I still think you should honestly express your views on the gift, that is what someone else was looking for.

So far in participating in the Secret Santa Reviews on the Cinematic Katzenjammer, I have been lucky. No films that test my patience, morality or my stomach. I’m not sure how Nick decides to pair up films with participants. If he uses a random process then I have been under Fortune’s  good star, if as editor, he screens films and matches them with people that he thinks might fit well with the move, then Good Job Nick. I was pleased to receive my assignment and even more pleased when I opened it up and examined it closely, it is a cinematic gem. “Black Narcissus” is a movie I have heard about for decades and never got around to seeing. Much like a book that has been assigned to you rather than pulled off the shelf and borrowed under your own will, a movie can feel like a chore because it is expected of you to have seen it. Like “The Great Gatsby” or “1984” in high school, “Black Narcissus” turns out to be something that will stick with me because I liked it rather than it being a mere assignment to get out of the way.

One of the reasons that a film could stay out of your reach is a lack of familiarity with any of its premise in the first place. I’d heard this referred to as a mystery, as a cultural piece, as a woman’s film and as a sexual Gothic melodrama. Without a handle on the subject matter or story, it was easy to pass by for something more familiar, that was my mistake. As usual here on the KAMAD blog, I will be staying far away from spoilers. I don’t want to recount the story scene by scene for the readers, I always try to share my impressions and emotions without repeating the whole movie. However, since my own reluctance to see the film for a number of years has been a result of ignorance, let me just give a quick set up of the events and plot. An order of nuns in India have obtained the right to open a school/hospital/convent in the abandoned palace of an Indian general’s family. A younger nun is given authority to take a half dozen sisters and act as the Mother Superior in the new and remote location. The local population is primitive by Western standards and suspicious of outsiders and new ways. The agent for the General making the donation is an expatriate Englishman who appears to be very unsympathetic to the  plan for somewhat selfish reasons. All of the women are chosen to participate in the endeavor for personal characteristics they display, and all of them have different reactions to the situation they find themselves in.

With that set up out of the way, let me explain the features of the film that I most enjoyed and that I think would be appealing to other film lovers. There are three distinct pleasures that I derived from my screening of the film; it is breathtakingly beautiful, it is overtly sexual (at least for 1947) and it is freakishly weird in character development. It deserves it’s reputation as a classic film, I just don’t know that everyone will know why without having a little better peek at it.

This is a film set in India, in the Himalayan regions, and it was shot entirely in England. You will not be aware of how rooted to the backlot this feature is. The cinematography, lighting and background mattes will convince you that you are on a mountain precipice in a remote location in India. The sets are constructed and decorated in such a way as to suggest they are ancient, neglected rooms or sparse regulated spiritual environments. The outdoor shots look expansive and convey a feeling of isolation despite being on the Pinewood Studios lot.

Michael Powell, who shares credit with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, is known for his visual style. He was responsible for the look of “The Thief of Baghdad”  and made “The Red Shoes”, one of the most iconic color films of the early part of cinema history. This movie revels in colors and camera angles and lighting that are startlingly beautiful and interesting at the same time. Along with legenday cameraman Jack Cardiff, Powell gives us some vertigo inducing views of not just mountains but dining halls, chapels and even people.

The white habits of the nuns crossing against exotic colors creates an otherworldly atmosphere from the beginning. The first shots of the film are of an office with a ceiling fan, but the view seems to be from a level higher than the ceiling fan itself. There are several points in the film where the characters are viewed from above as if we are spying on them under a microscope, observing their actions and noting the characteristics of each cell as it floats across the slide that has been inserted. These shots are well designed and they don’t come off as a directorial flourish but rather as a natural way of observing something that is foreign but at the same time familiar.

A key location in the film is the bell that the nuns use to announce the start of the day to the valley of natives below them. It is located on an outcrop from the palace, right on the edge of a precipice that would intimidate even seasoned base jumpers. The view is spectacular, but as I have already said, it is an illusion. The location is not a mountain top and what we see is largely special photographic effects, but they will put to shame much of the CGI wizardry that now dominates film making.

It is not just the sets and scenery that make this film visually spectacular. The lighting of characters and the movement of wind through the palace is also evocative. The mystery of the women and the location is heightened by small touches of color or choices of perspective. This is frankly one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It is almost possible to envision each frame as it’s own stand alone image, deserving of a place on your wall or in a coffee table book of photographs.

While I am not quite done mentioning the look of the film, I want to transition to the sexual nature of the movie. A film featuring nuns that was made in 1947 may not seem like a rich subject for erotic psychology but this film is loaded with references and images that seem to scream out “SEX” in spite of the subdued way in which the story progresses. The palace that the sisters take over, is referred to as a palace, but it was actually the location of the harem for the General’s grandfather. He kept his women there and the caretaker makes a passing comment that it is now to be occupied again by women. The decaying but opulent interior is splashed with erotic murals from Indian culture. It might have been the first thing that nuns could be expected to do but to cover or paint over them. It never happens. In many of the interactions that take place during the story, the murals remain in the background. When the nuns arrive at the palace, they are greeted by the General’s agent Mr. Dean. He is an Englishman who has nearly gone native. He is barely dressed each time he encounters the sisters, his shirt opened across his chest and his legs exposed by shorts. He seems to resent that the women are unavailable to him because of their vows, but makes it clear that he has a particular need for women. His suggestion that the education of the young women of the district would be beneficial to him carries with it a strange sexual undertone. He lingers over a piece of tapestry with an erotic scene painted on it as he verbally fences with the new Mother Superior. While several of the nuns
are older, two are young enough to be attractive to a man in his late thirties or early forties. Deborah Kerr plays the tense new
Superior, a woman who has come to the order as a release from the pain of a failed love affair that left her a marked woman in her native Irish land. We never get the full story behind Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, but it is strongly suggested that she is an emotionally damaged woman of loose morals who is seeking celibacy as a way of righting her mind. All of the sisters are effected by the location. It is hinted that even the oldest and most down to earth nun, Sister Phillipa has allowed erotic thoughts to distract her from her duties as the gardener for the convent.

A young Jean Simmons, plays a native of the district who appears to be orphaned and also something of a vixen. She is deposited with the sisters as a way of keeping her out of Mr. Dean’s bedroom, which he surprisingly does not want her occupying. Her presence stirs the pot of eroticism even more. In a couple of scenes she seductively vamps in front of a mirror or dances with a lewd twerk in her hips in the former bathing lounge of the brothel nee palace.

In a summary of the story that I read on line, the author suggested that the “Young General”, the nephew of their benefactor and an interloper in this world of women, has seduced the young Kanchi. That perspective ignores that she is part of the erotic background of the location and it is her effect on him that produces his action. All of the sensuality becomes too much for some of the characters and they become unhinged in very different ways by its continuing influence. It is at this point that the story becomes a macabre tale of unrequited love and madness.

 The characters frankly become even more strange than they started out as. The atmosphere starts to close in on them and the haunting location and images spark desires and tip egos in ways that seem melodramatic but understandable. We have been set up for some of these elements by the winds whispering constantly through the film. The way the habits move of their own accord suggests that the women are not quite in control of their own behaviors.

The intensity of emotional turmoil is easy to read on the face of Sister Ruth. Her eyes are dark and terrifying from the beginning of their time on top of the mountain. As she lurks in corners and spies on the comings and goings of Mr. Dean, she becomes more and more lost. There is a particularly startling scene in which she is

revealed to us as having made a significant decision about her life. She doesn’t have to say anything, all that has to happen is a door opens and we see that sexually repressed madness has taken her over. While Sister Clodagh may have sexual stirrings triggered by Mr. Dean and the palace, we know that she has kept her sanity. Once again the visual nature of the movie shows us what power the eroticism takes as we see an even graver change in the eyes of Ruth.

We have oversexualized teen Lolitas, and handsome exotic men mixed into a strange location in a foreign land, all of which is layered on top of nuns who have taken vows of celibacy but who are still subject to human frailties. It all adds up to a unique film experience which will haunt you with it’s breathtaking beauty and strange story. “Black Narcissus” deserves it reputation as a great film from post war England, and it was a stocking stuffer that I am sorry I left in the toe for so long. Whoever was my Secret Santa, I’d like to thank you for the push you gave me toward this memorable gift. Merry Christmas to all.


6 thoughts on “Cinematic Katzenjammer Not So Sectret Santa: Black Narcissus (1947)

  1. Thanks for the gift, the experience was great. I splurged and bought the Criterion Blu ray in hopes that it would be worth keeping. It is. I went and looked at your site once you posted the url and I will be following and visiting regularly. I have the 1001 book, I have not yet calculated how many I still need to see. One less for sure now. Merry Christmas.

  2. I have not seen “Black Narcissus” yet, although it has been on my list of things to watch. But after your review I think I will within the next couple of weeks. Thank you for participating in our Secret Santa Review Swap!

  3. Damn, Richard, making me all interested in a movie I had no intention of ever watching… I'll have to finally track it down and make it an afternoon thing. Thanks for participating in the Secret Santa!

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