Servant: “How do I know what nuns eat!?”
The Old General: “Do you see that crate? Sausages. They will eat sausages. Europeans eat sausages wherever they go.”
Nuns in the Himalayas! Now there’s a somewhat unusual premise for a mainstream English film from the 40’s. Sounds more like an ad for something Ed Wood Jr. might have done had his ship ever come in. All the ingredients are there: a bizarre setting, repressed passion, an enigmatic holy man, strange voodoo drumming (in the Himalayas??), and a deserted, windswept palace filled with erotic murals and empty, giant bird cages. Fortunately for Rumer Godden, on whose novel this month’s chosen film is based, Black Narcissus fell into hands capable of making it more than a just another competitor for the Golden Turkey Awards. Black Narcissus (1947) is one of the cinema’s truly unique entertainments.
It was co-written, co-produced, and co-directed by the British team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Calling themselves The Archers (hence the strange logo which opens the movie), Powell & Pressburger made 14 films together between 1942 and 1956. Men of eclectic tastes, they tackled, with considerable critical & popular success, subjects as diverse as the British military (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and classical ballet (The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffmann). With Black Narcissus, Powell & Pressburger also had the Academy-award-winning talents of cinematographer Jack Cardiff and art director Alfred Junge to draw on, and an excellent cast. The end result was a polymorphously-perverse high-altitude blend of Rudyard Kipling and Wuthering Heights.
Young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), an Anglican nun teaching in Calcutta, is sent to establish a combined girls’ school and hospital in a rajah’s abandoned pleasure palace (“the House of Women”) built on the edge of cliff 8000 feet up in the Himalayan mountains. The place is so remote that looking down into the valleys below is like looking at the moon through the wrong end of a very large telescope. A group of monks who’d previously tried to establish a foothold in the same spot had held out for a mere five months before deciding that the Lord could be served in less hostile surroundings.
Naturally, when the nuns arrive, the only person around who knows what’s going on in this pagan eyrie turns out to be a ruggedly handsome Englishman (“Mr. Dean”, played by David Farrar) who spends most of his time walking around bare-chested, bare-legged, and / or drunk. Temptation takes strange forms.
Naturally, a sensuous young village girl (Jean Simmons) is brought to the new school to save her from her wild ways.
And naturally, the handsome young son of the local potentate (Sabu) invites himself (along with his finery and his Black Narcissus perfume) in for lessons in algebra and French (“I want to study a lot of learning”).
Whether it’s due to the endlessly blowing winds, Sabu’s perfume, or the sight of Farrar’s bare legs, Sister Clodagh’s memories of a youthful, ill-fated love affair are rekindled, Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) winds up planting flowers instead of potatoes and carrots, and poor, neurotic Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) goes mad with lust and jealousy. Byron’s performance is wonderful. She dons a secretly acquired, illicit evening dress with the kind of abandon that Lady Chatterley saved for the gamekeeper. Sister Ruth’s is a madness to rival Ophelia’s. By the end of the movie she’s metamorphosed into a stunning white-faced Kabuki demon bent on murder.
There are inexplicably weird moments. A nun leads her charges in reading aloud from a blackboard displaying…animals?…flowers?…clothing? Guess again. “Cannon…warship…bayonet….gun…” Go figure. The women’s swirling white habits sometimes give them the look of Sufi dervishes instead of servants of Mary. And let’s not forget those drums.
At first I expected the nuns to triumph over adversity. That’s the way it’s supposed to be in these movies. Like the nuns, it took me a while to realize I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This isn’t The African Queen. In that movie Katherine Hepburn saved Humphrey Bogart from “going native”, and made a better man out of him; in Black Narcissus western civilization goes down for the count. Mr. Dean may be a cad and a cynic (one of his first remarks to Sister Clodagh is, “You’ll like the General, Sister. He also is a superior being”), but he understands the place he’s living in too well to try to impose his values on it. In a refreshing twist on Euro-centrism, Himalayan life proves far more seductive than either Sister Clodagh or Sister Ruth.
For a movie that often looks like it was done on a shoot for National Geographic, Black Narcissus is all gorgeous Technicolor smoke & mirrors. It was filmed almost entirely in London’s Pinewood Studios. Michael Powell wanted total control over lighting, color, and atmosphere. He also wanted to create a sealed, claustrophobic environment for his actors to work in, to mimic the story’s sense of isolation. This is one of the most tightly crafted films of its time. The music for the climactic scene, for example, was composed before a single frame was taken, and the visuals were then shot and edited to match the music.
Black Narcissus is my second-favorite movie based on a Rumer Godden novel. If I’m ever able to find the video, the nuns will probably be back for a sequel. That movie was called In This House of Brede, and in it Diana Rigg gave a superb performance as an ambitious businesswoman who, after a devastating personal tragedy, turns her back on the world and joins a Benedictine order of nuns. Unlike Black Narcissus, Brede exemplifies the power of the spiritual life, not its defeat.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Although I would still describe Black Narcissus as a Technicolor dream, with masterful lighting & camerawork & production design, I wasn’t so patient with the storyline this time around. I would have enjoyed seeing a group of strong, independent-minded women meeting the challenges of life in a remote, exotic location. Instead, the film gives us a group of vulnerable, neuroses-laden, woefully ignorant women utterly failing to meet the challenges of life in a remote, exotic location. Plot-wise, this is Himalayan gothic. Which could be fun, if that were all I was expecting. Perhaps the main problem for me was that In This House of Brede set a much higher bar. That story wasn’t lacking in drama either, but Diana Rigg anchored it with a powerful sense of gravitas.
Other things also irked me. The palace of Mopu is supposed to be at 8000 or 9000 feet, yet David Farrar’s dissolute Mr. Dean always seems to dress like he’s on vacation in Oahu. One of the features of the palace’s setting is supposed to be a perpetual, chill-laden mountain wind that drives everyone a little crazy; it’s hard to buy into that when a handsomely-tanned Dean is running around in shorts and with a bare chest. Nothing communicated a sense of climatic stress or isolation the way the (painted) visuals conveyed the splendors of the distant valleys and remote peaks. And while I’m on the topic of costuming, would any man with even the remotest respect for the nuns at Mopu come to visit them without bothering to put on a shirt? Dean might complain of their ignorance of the customs of the region they’ve chosen to establish themselves in, but he, too, seems to have failed to master the most basic gestures of elementary courtesy. Not too credible for a man who would have had years of negotiating the minefields and intrigues of a minor Indian royal court.
Black Narcissus gives us virtual nothing in the way of a look at the nuns’ spiritual lives. What are they modeling to the local people, besides their insecurities? The palace’s erotic frescoes and paintings dominate the picture; the nuns offer precious little in the way of devotional practice to put the strength of their own faith on display.
Never do we have the sense that these women have done any homework on the society with which they’ve chosen to partner. The one English lesson we see being taught features pictures of guns and knives on the blackboard! Had these nuns been exemplars of the kinds of missionaries the churches sent out to spread the gospel, the Word would never have made it out of the Holy Land.
Other gripes: Is it conceivable that Sister Phillipa, the gardener, would really have put her fellow sisters at risk by planting flowers instead of the vegetables they would need to survive and stay healthy? And how could the Mother Superior be so out of touch with the daily work of the convent that she wouldn’t have noticed anything was amiss? If the film gives us nothing to admire about these women except their ability to express frustrated desire, why should we really care? Would any self-respecting convent have actually accepted Sabu’s dashing prince as a permanent addition to an all-girls’ classroom? Again, could any Mother Superior be that clueless of the inevitable consequences? I’d also add May Hallatt’s role as the servant Angu Ayah to the awful tradition of annoyingly quirky, over-the-top Hollywood domestics. Lastly, is it just me or did those supposedly Indian drums sound an awful like something I’ve heard in half a dozen Tarzan pictures?
At this point, I’m feeling like a traitor to my original review. Let me say that I still enjoyed the performances by Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Sabu, and Jean Simmons. In her radiant white nun’s habit, Ms. Kerr held her own with the beauty of the snow-capped mountains beyond Mopu’s windows. Mr. Farrar was the quintessentially savvy, virile British expat. Ms. Byron was memorably mad. Sabu was the perfect choice for the Young General, although I can’t watch him without hearing John Prine’s “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone” playing in the background. Jean Simmons was dynamite sexy as the young temptress; she had no problems holding her own with Mopu’s erotic décor. The many things I’d call into question in the film don’t include the Young General’s seduction.
Despite everything I’ve written above, I’d still feature Black Narcissus in a local film festival. I’d be fascinated to see the reaction from a contemporary audience. No one will ever see Technicolor or studio work used to better effect. Ditto for the huge close-ups and the high- and low-angle camera shots. Alfred Junge was a brilliant Production Designer and Art Director—there are still people who will swear that the settings he created entirely in a London studio for Black Narcissus actually exist. Jack Cardiff was one of the great cinematographers, and Powell and Pressburger were no slouches as directors. Check out Craig McCall’s 26-minute documentary on Cardiff and Black Narcissus on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuwU_f42dUk.
And no one, I mean absolutely no one, is going to forget Sister Ruth’s last appearance.
The film is actually quite faithful to Rumer Godden’s novel, but a couple of key changes (along with the striking close-ups and camera work) give the movie a “hothouse” atmosphere that contrasts sharply with the novel’s tone of elegiac despair. This would make a fine case study for the dynamics of translating one medium into another. Here are three of my favorite passages from the book:
“Sister Ruth went quickly away without asking for permission. She had to go away. From a little girl she had always had wild tempers, but lately there was something in them that frightened her herself. When she was angry nowadays, she could not help what she did or what she said, because she did not know. It felt like something dark and wet, flooding her brain, like blood. Often she wondered if it were blood; sometimes she actually felt it seeping into her ears and tasted it. She did not know what it was, but she was frightened of it. She was so frightened that she had told no one about it. When she knew it was coming she went away by herself; it was all right if she went away, if she could—in time.”
“Here the house was never still, it strained and spoke in the wind that broke all privacy. There was no such thing as privacy at Mopu, every sound was carried through the house and the rooms were built of windows opening on the endless corridors where the servants and workmen came walking by; and yet sometimes there was that sense of emptiness that was almost frightening, as if the house had swallowed everyone; you could walk in it for minutes and meet nobody. It was as if it had swallowed them up, they and the restraints they had brought to it; they were gone under the old familiarity, their saints tossed down like beads, the bell on its thread of sound snapped off….The flimsy walls did not shut out the world but made a sounding box for it; through every crack the smell of the world crept in, the smell of rain and sun and earth and the deodar tress and a wind strangely scented with tea. Here the bell did not command, it sounded doubtful against the gulf; the wind took the notes away and yet it brought the sound of the bells at Goontu very strongly; pagan temple bells. And everywhere in front of them was that far horizon and the eagles in the gulf below the snows. ‘I think you can see too far,’ said Sister Philippa. ‘I look across there, and then I can’t see the potato I’m planting and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I plant it or not.’”
“’[Pantheism is] saying that God is in everything, animate and inanimate; in the trees and stones and streams.’
‘That sounds very beautiful,’ [Dilip] said thoughtfully, ‘but it certainly isn’t true.’
Sister Adela was surprised. ‘Why are you so sure?’ she asked.
‘Because,’ he said, ‘we can conquer trees and streams and stones; we can cut down the forest and dam the stream and break up the stones, but we can’t conquer God. Now, He,’ he said, pointing with his pen, ‘might very well be in the mountain. We call it Kanchenjunga and we believe God is there. No one can conquer that mountain and they never will. Men can’t conquer God, they only go mad for the love of Him. We have a legend in this country that among those mountains are strange men, who have gone mad for love of the mountain, and because of being mad, they go naked in the snow with white hair on their necks and chests and arms, and their eyes are like ice. And whoever sees them,’ said Dilip, his eyes growing big, ‘they kill and devour and we call them the Abominable Men. They have gone too close to the mountain, and they are mad.’
‘You have a very vivid imagination, haven’t you?’ said Sister Adela.
‘Well, I got some of that out of a book,’ he said modestly, but it’s all perfectly true. You have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad. The strongest of all,’ he said, ‘is my Great-Uncle, the Sunnyasi. He makes himself strong inside himself and he can look at the mountain all day.’”