By 1947, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — also known together as “The Archers” — had collaborated successfully since 1939. This year would mark their first fully Technicolor film, Black Narcissus. Based on Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name, Black Narcissus would receive technical recognition by the Academy Awards and be immortalized in cinema canon, inspiring the likes of Martin Scorsese. The Archers would become the quintessential kings of eye-popping, three-strip color dramas with a focus on topics and events that affected British citizens: World War II, imperialism in all of its forms, the bounds of love and class. Jonathan Rosenbaum would call their films “English to the core.” While The Archers were a dominant force in British cinema, namely in depicting the human experience especially at its psychological worst, their lens was often quite Western and white. Black Narcissus — a departure from The Archer’s homeland — is set in India. The focus still exemplifies that of British characters, but features Himalayan characters who challenge (or develop beside) the main players. While Black Narcissus is a game-changing feat of cinema, it’s still important to understand that the power dichotomy between British characters and characters of color is imbalanced. Any sort of criticism The Archers are making about British occupation in Indian territory falls flat in execution, dialogue, action and visual representation.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is appointed Sister Superior at a new location in a remote area outside of Darjeeling. Her Mother Superior (Nancy Roberts), disenchanted British agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and even housekeeper Ayah (May Hallatt) have warned Clodagh about this abandoned seraglio and the level of difficulty taking care of a new convent. Between Clodagh and the four nuns who have accompanied her, problems are abound. They each run into their own obstacles, with Clodagh and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) at the forefront. Their new environment proves to be physically, emotionally and psychologically bending.
For Sister Clodagh in particular, the presence of Mr. Dean (as well as the wide open land) brings back memories of her Ireland home and a man who had little intentions of marriage. She stays staunch and pious throughout, driven by her duty to God, to the people of Mopu and to her Mother Superior. What adds to her depth is fully Deborah Kerr’s performance. Take, for example, a moment in which Clodagh lets her guard down at a Christmas service. As the hymn moves from “The First Noel” to “Lullay, My Liking,” Clodagh smiles while conducting, dozing off to a distant memory of receiving a gift from her lover as they sing the same song with a group of carolers. Finally, Clodagh has a moment of privacy and personalization, aside from the hard work of running the convent. As the song comes to an end, Clodagh’s face drops from a bittersweet smile to sudden awareness — “can anybody see what I’m feeling or read my thoughts,” Kerr’s face says. She puts out the candles at the end of the service, at the same time putting out the flames of the past.
As for Sister Ruth, she acts as a foil to Clodagh. In the confines between a life of simplicity/service and a life of spiritual depravity — as the Anglican church would assume of the native Indians — Ruth lies in the middle. Her hysteria and desire to leave the order is what she is eventually punished for. Ruth, the audience learns, has been sick since before being chosen to relocate. Her undoing seems to be partially because of the environment change — something in the air or the water ruins her mental state. Ruth’s famous last few scenes indicate her feelings about Clodagh and desire to be with Mr. Dean. In her mind, she will never be as good as her Sister Superior. Byron was more interested in playing Ruth as a human woman with her own emotional and psychological issues, but Powell was more interested in the idea of her being crazed. Ruth cannot fit within the Freudian undercurrent of the film, that being the Madonna-Whore complex, and she’s promptly let go for her lack of a hold on her identity or emotions.
Besides there being a binary between main characters, the colonialist and religious undertones build the cornerstone of the film. The obvious lies within the religious and the constant jabs by Mr. Dean at the nuns. He’s quick to explain the original use of the remote building — a place for wives and concubines — or to poke fun at Sister Ruth for slipping up on the job (he tells her she’s early for the bell ringing, and she reads it as flirting). At times, Mr. Dean acts as a “personal Satan” to Clodagh and even Ruth, making snide or rude comments about their work or being frank about his belief in their inability to properly keep up in Mopu. He is eventually correct in his comment of the nuns not being able to stay for long, which adds to the binary between the sexes — Clodagh may be presented as the main character, but Mr. Dean is presented with more power, with more level-headedness and reason.
Art director Alfred Junge made visual differentiations between groups of characters. Nuns wore only off-white and minimal makeup. Mopu natives wear a variety of different colors, or — in the General’s (Sabu) case — they’re dressed in stark white and adorned in furs and jewels. Even Kanchi (Jean Simmons) is a visual counterpoint to the nuns with her nose ring and thick eye makeup. Kanchi is more in tune with physical pleasures, being the only one who enjoys Narcisse Noir — or Black Narcissus, the namesake of the film — a parfum the General found at the British Army-Navy store and shows to the nuns. Like Mr. Dean, Kanchi presents an air of temptation. When the young General arrives, he wants to be taken under the educational care of the convent, learning languages and arithmetic. However, he rejects their teachings, including that of Jesus Christ of which he is interested, to run off with Kanchi and embrace his heritage.
The film seems to be commenting on two things: one — that the United Kingdom’s grasp on India and Pakistan is impossible to hold, and two — in relation to its release date coinciding with Indian independence — the wistful goodbye to power and reign over the state. Black Narcissus’ presentation of Indian characters isn’t positive and portrays them as child-like or savage. Regardless of the General’s Cambridge education, Clodagh still reacts to him as lesser. Kanchi, especially, is childlike and vocally does not express herself, except for through screams after being punished for stealing. Even though Mr. Dean works primarily with natives, he and the nuns still agree with the ideas that they believe modern medicine is “magic” or that they need Western health care or education to continue.
While given the opportunity to shoot the film in the Himalayas, The Archers decided on sound stages in England with painted sets. The final product is stunning with painted landscapes that convey the richness of the land or the dark desires of the characters. The choice was made to be more controlling of the lighting and set, which would work in cinematographer Jack Cardiff and Junge’s favor. In this way, close ups and outside scenes — namely the bell-tower— were not sacrificed in the name of weather. However, this presents Mopu as a Shangri-La instead of its reality. As per their manifesto, Powell and Pressburger state “no artist believes in escapism.” As entrancing and lush as Black Narcissus may be, it is still rather escapist as a setting. The Archers could find a place of truth for the nuns — struggling as Western women in a non-Western society to fulfill their duties — but not for anyone else. Simmons plays Kanchi in brownface and Ayah is presented confusingly with a Cockney accent and no body paint but with regional garments — is she a white woman or born in Mopu?
In relation to many other films that depict spiritual struggle, Black Narcissus should stand at the forefront as an example of robust filmmaking — not only through its technical aspects (especially the cinematography and mise-en-scène overall), but through the performances and themes. Chronologically and technically, it fits comfortably in the middle of the Powell and Pressburger canon, as colorful and deep as ever. The film haunts as a story about failure and desire, featuring themes that would reoccur in The Red Shoes and even in duo’s professional life as they drifted apart in the mid-1950s. No matter the fantasy and clash of culture that swirls around Black Narcissus, it is probably best that The Archers did not revisit Orientalist ideas, and that they stuck to what they knew best — the human interest and depths of United Kingdom and European issues.
Watch ‘Black Narcissus’ at FilmStruck.
Marianna Aloisio-Seale (@mlaloisio) is a freelance film writer who specializes in writing about women in film and mid-century cinema. She is an upcoming Cinema and Media Studies MA student at UCLA. Her work can be found on Fandor and Screen Queens.