Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus is #576 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 09/10/10 on Blu-Ray at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #154 on
 TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).

Can one truly describe a Powell/Pressburger film as batshitcrazy?  Does one dare?  Are The Archers above such a low class term?  Does their cinema transcend the insane and instead take its place in a more Heavenly, spiritual place of honour?  Probably, but I am going to stick with the term anyway.  Whether someone has this auteuristic team named as their religion on Facebook (and yes I do), and therefore puts them in the highest regard or not, the terms stays.  Batshitcrazy it is.

Seriously though, Black Narcissus, the film The Archers did just after their first masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death, and just before their second (and greatest) masterpiece The Red Shoes, is a psychologically brilliant (though not quite masterpiece, for one does not want to overuse such a term, but awfully close I must say) look at faith and lust and love and how all three intertwine, often to dangerous, and quite inevitably tragic outcomes.  Set in a remote Himalayan mountainside makeshift convent, where an Indian general has offered his ancestral palace to a group of nuns (in actuality, a former brothel, which of course adds to the skewed juxtaposition of faith and sexual desire), Black Narcissus, starring Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Sabu, a young Jean Simmons and Kathleen Byron as the tragic Sister Ruth, plays out as a socio-religious thriller.  And in the hands of The Archers, and their regular cinematographer-extraordinaire Jack Cardiff, it plays out as a gorgeously photographed work of art as well.
But back to the batshitcrazy comment from the beginning of this piece.  The term comes into play with the erotic nature of the film, set against the restrictive Catholicism of its main characters. It is this very clashing of cultures and ideals (East vs. West, sexual desire vs. spiritual faith) that gives Black Narcissus its intensity - its batshitcraziness.  

Marina Warner, introducing the film on BBC2, called it a masterpiece:

"The suggestions continually hover on the brink of hyperbole. The film achieves its extraordinary impact by daring so much against all bounds of decorum, far in excess of realism. The crimson lipstick Sr. Ruth applies turns her into a kind of werewolf, the kittenish wiles of Jean Simmonsalso convey, in a different mode, a fantasy of female sexual appetite. The crazed and sometimes cruel flapping of Angu Ayah adds yet another flourish to the portrait of female hysteria. In this convent, this house of women, all the women are mad."

And later:

"Again and again Powell submits Sr. Clodagh to visitants from the world of chaos and passion she has foresworn in order to touch her, shake her, break her down. First and foremost David Farrar's Mr. Dean, all bare, hairy legs, insolence and roguish eyes, erupts into her convent, the spirit of maleness embodied. The holy father in the grounds issues a mute challenge to her faith. Luxury, desire, pleasure, humiliation all thrust in upon her in the forms of the young General with his emeralds and perfumes, and of Kanchi, the young Jean Simmons in dark panstick with a jewel in her nose, and Katrhleen Byron's famous pent up, ravening portrayal of Sr. Ruth finally holds up a mirror of the abyss into which Sr. Clodagh too might fall, and indeed only just escapes in more ways than one. As in Clarissa, Samuel Richardson's classic novel about prolonged seduction and embattled virtue, Powell pits the chaste and steely Deborah Kerr against all these assailants and watches her thrash about with relish. While Lovelace had to rape Clarissa to achieve his end, Powell only has to show that Mr. Dean was right and Sr. Clodagh was mistaken. The ending of Black Narcissus vindicates the world against the cloister, libido against superego, male against female."

 
To end on a quote from the man responsible for the film itself, in Michael Powell's own view this was the most erotic film he ever made. "It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image from beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts."

7 comments:

Ed Howard said...

I wouldn't be stingy with the "masterpiece" label for this one - it's a fantastic film, one of my favorites, and yes, it's absolutely "batshitcrazy," and haunting, and creepy, and sensual, and sad, and just gorgeous. Sister Ruth stalks through the halls of the convent like a vampire, driven crazy by fairly normal sexual and worldly desires, and the unreal painted backdrops contribute to the weird atmosphere of the film. It's a marvelous film, totally intense and complex.

KEVYN KNOX said...

Yes indeed. The film does have this otherwordly fake look throughout, which adds to the strangeness and the ominous nature of the film as a whole. As for Byron's Sister Ruth, I love your description of her. And as for the masterpiece moniker you say not to be so stingy with, I am always afraid (like many a critic or critic wannabe) to overuse such a term, but yes, it probably does fit well in this case.

Christine said...

I do love the Archers! When I was trying to get through all of their films I started watching this one. But I was too tired to finish, then had to return it before I could finish. Must try again!

Jason Liller said...

I saw "Black Narcissus" for the first time a little less than a year ago and was completely blown away. I felt as though I was watching a lost masterpiece that someone had just unearthed and revealed to the public. This film should be at least as well known as "The African Queen". Why isn't it?

I think it's because it was about fifty years ahead of its time. It was successful in its day, and yet I can't imagine how it must have played. As it stands, it seems like a transition piece between midcentury cinema and the cinema of the present. There are points where I feel as though I'm watching "The King and I" and others where I think I STILL haven't caught up with where this film wants to take me.

See the Criterion blu-ray edition if at all possible.

KEVYN KNOX said...

The Criterion Blu-Ray is exactly the version I saw. I blind bought it (having never seen the film before) and of course do not regret it. I just blind bought A Canterbury Tale (also the Archers!) and will put that one to the proverbial test (though I have a feeling I know the outcome already).

As for your thoughts on the film Mr. Liller - I had not thought of it that way, but it seems to make complete sense to me nonetheless.

PS- I thought you were all about silent cinema, and the coming of sound ruined everything;)

Jason Liller said...

Wait... This is a talkie? <>

"A Canterbury Tale", and "The 49th Parallel" sit on my shelf, as yet unwatched. I liked "A Matter of Life and Death" until the final act (most people seem fine with it, though, so I'm in the minority). "The Tales of Hoffman" has its merits, but I couldn't get through it in one sitting. "The Red Shoes" is, as you know, magnificent.

I highly recommend the pre-Archers Michael Powell film "The Edge of the World". It's available in the US from Milestone, but I would spring for the BFI's region-free blu-ray which can be had for a reasonable price from Amazon.co.uk .

KEVYN KNOX said...

I will get right on The Edge of the World. Thanx for the recommendation. And yes, The Red Shoes is indeed magnificent.