What a strange movie. Visually it is gorgeous — the painted Himalayan backdrops, Sister Superior’s steely blue bedroom, Sister Superior’s face in its starchy, trembling frame — Deborah Kerr’s face.
It’s a 1947 Powell-Pressburger melodrama about an order of nuns who are given the run of an old Himalayan palace for the purpose of setting up a school and a medical dispensary. I’ve been thinking about various scenes and images from it lately — I recently saw it for the first time, then promptly watched it again with the intention of writing about it.
Even for a melodrama it’s uncommonly melodramatic. This movie is chock full of women who are visibly utterly lost in their moods. They need to function as a group but they’re more colleagues than friends, their hierarchy a source of endless friction, their collective mood increasingly misshapen by their individual torments; they work until their hands are blistered in an effort to keep hysteria at bay; they have flashbacks about things like the time a conflict with their fiancee set their lower lip a-trembling; they eventually go apeshit, some more spectacularly than others. They almost unanimously blame it on the strange atmosphere. One of the nuns says that in the clear air “you can see too far.” Nearly all of the characters seem to be sexually frustrated all of the time — even the oldest woman, a wizened native caretaker older than just about everyone else around, longs for the palace to be filled with concubines rather than nuns, as it once was — and their conflicts with each other take on a corresponding shadow of bitter anticipation. They desperately need to get out of their own heads for a few moments but it isn’t going to happen.
The film does have a few humorous moments to lighten the mood, such as Mr. Dean — the agent of the old general who owns the palace — bouncing up and down as he arrives to meet the nuns on a very small, very ordinary-looking pony.
Or when he brings conversations with nuns perilously close to the subject of sex, which he does as pointedly and repeatedly as one can probably manage in conversation with nuns. In one scene, for example, Sister Superior greets him by saying she wants to talk about business. “I didn’t suppose you’d want to talk to me about anything else,” says Mr. Dean. On another occasion she complains that the locals are undisciplined, “like children.” “Oh,” says Mr. Dean. “Don’t you like children, Sister?” This latter remark is followed by a brief pause and the simultaneous raising of eyebrows, his out of pleasure with himself, hers out of surprise, then sudden exasperation.
I didn’t feel Mr. Dean was entirely convincing as a provocative character, though. The BFI describes actor David Farrar as “[a] strongly virile figure” and I suppose there is something virile about his appearance, but his character here is feckless, ultimately harmless. He’s inappropriately sexual with the nuns but it comes off more quirky than predatory. He eyes Sister Superior up and down when they first meet — I laughed; my male friend watching the movie with me said “that’s preposterous!” — and he’s always walking around shirtless in short shorts and finding little ways to call attention to the fact that nuns don’t fuck, but I found it implausible that he should sexually torment them as he supposedly does. It’s not Farrar’s acting or his looks that are to blame; the character, I think, is made slightly ridiculous, as if to allow him to unfurl his sexuality without poking fun at it would be too much for the setting. The little ponies he rides around on are the opposite of butch, the short shorts more of a silly affectation than a proper tease, and his manner of flirting is more clumsy than provocative. It’s adequate in the Himalayas but imagine him checking out nuns in London and I think you’ll see what I mean.
At the same time he seems to have been thwarted before the nuns even arrived on the scene. What’s he doing there in the mountains of Nowhere if not refusing to have a love life? He is the one who brings the Jean Simmons character to the nunnery for safekeeping — a young local girl named Kanchi, ripe for marriage and related pursuits. There’s a strong implication that he might very well have kept her to himself — she’d been hanging around his house in hopes that he would — but he chose not to. Later in the film he yells at one of the other characters “I don’t love anyone!” but it’s obvious, it hardly needed to be said. He is the closest these nuns are going to get to a fully operational adult male so it’s not entirely implausible that they should want to fling themselves over cliffs on his account, but as a love interest he’s irredeemably shabby. It brings to mind stories like the one about the swan who fell for a swan-shaped boat.
Is the idea that the nuns, in choosing to repress themselves as they do, have also chosen to prevent themselves from seeing the world as it is? From seeing, for example, that Mr. Dean probably isn’t really into sex? Or is it that the exotic setting is meant to have a debilitating effect on the Westerners who find themselves there, such that they can no longer tell whether they’re grasping at a live wire or a more illusory excitement? Maybe I’m making too much of this point. Sometimes all it takes is one glimpse of a sullen rustic atop his idiotic little pony to turn one’s mind to cement. What a tidy parallel there could be, though, between the characters of Mr. Dean and the holy man, a constant presence (24 hours a day, rain or shine) on the palace’s property, and an irritant for Sister Superior, who can’t make sense of whether he’s a figure of advanced spirituality or a loony old man. She wants to evict him anyhow, and cries with frustration that she can’t, when he turns out to be a relation of the general who owns the place. He also turns out to be a decorated former general himself who reportedly speaks perfect English. She was mostly wrong about him, but essentially correct that his manner of refusing the world clashes with her own.
There is also something resembling a parallel between the characters of Mr. Dean and the young general, who is apparently meant to be alluring to some of the women, particularly Kanchi — he’s pretty, he dresses well, his family’s got money — and who is trying to become more refined, educating himself among the studious nuns. In order to convince Sister Superior to permit this, he argues with her that she shouldn’t think of him as a man, and that anyhow Jesus was a man, would they have turned him away? Cut to a shot of a statue of Jesus on the cross that the nuns apparently had hauled up the mountain by sherpas, and wonder, as a viewer, whether he counts as a man, as a potential lover. The work of an order of nuns is a strange business indeed. The young general remains juvenile and seemingly unaware of himself as a sexual being, unaware even that he might seem glamorous to them. When one of the nuns comments on his exotic fragrance being a bit too worldly for one engaged in religious studies he cheerfully tells her it’s something he picked up at an Army Navy store in London, “Black Narcissus.” (There is a lot of imperialism-centric irony in the film, all very nicely done, all very timely too – India became independent from British rule the year it was released).
One thing I really noticed while watching the film for the first time, it’s not terribly accurate. There are a million ways in which a film can feel inaccurate and not all are detractions — I am one of those people who thinks there is something interesting about Hitchcock’s use of backdrops in Marnie, for example — but in Black Narcissus I found the inaccuracies a detraction during my first viewing, far less so during my second. Maybe I’m overly sensitive about the Himalayas. I traveled in the region while in college — I spent a semester studying in northeastern India and in Kathmandu — and I’ve seen a lot of monasteries and temples up close, and I couldn’t help but notice that the nunnery in Black Narcissus and its cultural environs are a mish-mash of various Asian styles. As a film it evokes a period of time when people went out for chop suey and thought they were having exotic “Oriental” cuisine. Of course it’s easier for contemporary art directors to thoroughly immerse themselves in their quarry than it was pre-jet travel and pre-internet, but it wasn’t impossible then, and I think it would not have taken away the novelty or exoticism of the location had the filmmakers taken a bit more care with their research; to the contrary, it would have heightened them. I don’t mean to imply that it should have been a documentary instead, but the film’s aesthetic integrity seems to have been needlessly compromised at moments. The birds calling out in the forest surrounding the palace, for example, are distinctly from a different continent. (IMDB says they’re Australian kookaburras). The urns in one of the sets appear to have been grabbed from the swords-and-sandals section of the prop warehouse, their discus-throwing Greeks given a once-over with spray paint before being pressed into service. The natives have a habit of forming drum circles whenever someone is ill but their drumming sounds far more African than Indian. The characters, too, often feel more stylized than accurate representations of people generally do, and the natives with speaking roles are not portrayed by genuinely brown people. Kanchi, the sexy local girl I mentioned above, is played by Jean Simmons in an awkward — almost maliciously so — slap of bronze makeup. She gyrates in her room like Britt Ekland’s double in The Wicker Man (clothed, alas) and makes eyes at the sharp-dressed young general, and gets whipped by a cackling, snaggle-toothed old crone for stealing a chain from one of the prayer rooms to wear as a necklace.
The film is very much worth watching despite these flaws. It’s filled with passion, it’s well-written and terrifically acted, and visually it’s beautiful. Those backdrops! According to IMDB they were “blown-up black and white photographs. The art department then gave them their breathtaking colors by using pastel chalks on top of them.” Sister Superior’s bedroom was for me the most desirable location. It reminds me of the Bakst set designs for Schéhérazade I posted about months ago, but the incredible windows have the added attraction of framing incredible mountain views. She’s camping out in Shangri-La.
If you’re inclined to read more criticism of the film, there’s a Michael Walter essay with some interesting psychoanalytic bits here, and a thoughtful review by Joseph Jon Lanthier here. I’m very fond of this essay by Evan Bryson, digressions and sexy bits (“Is it obvious that the enormous bell Sister Clodagh pulls every morning is a homolog of God’s mighty genitals?”) and all.