Written & Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, Sabu, and Jean Simmons
UK, 100 min – 1947.
Black Narcissus recreates the western world’s allure for the exotic – with a twist. This is no escapist, romantic drama in the style of Arabian Nights. With Black Narcissus, Powell and Pressburger fill the screen with sexual tension and repressed desire that correlate with Britain’s failed attempts to maintain its empire, post war.
The ‘exotic’ in Black Narcissus are the Himalayas, where five nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) are sent to establish a convent. They arrive to find the palace promised to them, by the Old General (Esmond Knight), to be where the General’s father kept his women. Their first obstacle then seems to be reforming the wild nature of the people they refer to as “children.” Soon though, the nuns are affected by the windy environment, the presence of the sarcastic, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and the inability to change the native people’s suspicious beliefs. They begin to recall their past and relent to their desires, particularly the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who develops an attraction to Mr. Dean.
Black Narcissus uses the skeleton of the exotic melodrama film, but stretches it to become so much more. The sisters are affected by this strange atmosphere of dancing girls, constant wind, beating drums, and spiritual men. Instead of finding love or accepting their environment, the nuns encounter their subconscious troubles, while living in the Himalayas – their fears, regrets, and secret passions. The atmosphere shows the sisters that the discipline they value so highly and want to impart on the natives is false. It does not hold, when they are left in a place lacking western structure.
Since the sisters cannot succumb to their surroundings (which would mean breaking their Orderly vows), they cannot connect with the people they wish to help. They misunderstand the more humble of the people and even the most affluent Young General (Sabu), with his London ‘Black Narcissus’ perfume that’s seemingly out of place in the wild. This misunderstanding of cultures and an outright denial of change is a long term cause of the loss of empire.
Interestingly enough, the Himalayas scenes of Black Narcissus were shot in Pinewood Studios. It’s a testament to the genius collaboration between the directors, the production team (including cinematographer, Jack Cardiff and production designer, Alfred Junge) and the actors (specifically Kathleen Byron capturing the heigh of sexual repression) that the themes of the film still resonate strongly.