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Typed by Linda Cupples
From Framework 9, Winter 1978/79
By Michael Walker
Black Narcissus is a rare creature indeed: a great British movie. But it has scarcely been recognized as such. Whilst the recently published BFI booklet 'Powell, Pressburger and Others' goes some way towards according Michael Powell the high status he deserves in the history of British cinema, on this particular film it can only offer another reprinting of Raymond Durgnat's 1965 piece from Movie 14. And, although Durgnat may be (in the words of the introduction to the piece) 'the only British critic who has written extensively on Powell and Pressburger, and consistently recognized their importance', his comments on Black Narcissus do neither his nor the film any credit at all. 'Alas', he writes 'not even Jack Cardiff's glittering colour photography of Jean Simmons' tawny-and-green eyes can redeem Rumer Godden's story from its fatal defect .... A clumsy chopping-to-and-fro between a basically 'naice' idea of English life, a tourist's idea of the exotic and screaming-and-strangling melodrama.
Whilst my ideas of melodrama are, I trust, rather different from Raymond Durgnat's, I would agree that Black Narcissus is a melodrama. I have argued the case for the form elsewhere (Movie 29/30) and, although the article is confined to Hollywood melodrama, its principles can be applied by extension to a film such as Black Narcissus. Moreover, since the film is an exceptionally fine melodrama, its illustrates the potential vitality of the form within even the British cinema, where one is up against the Anglo-Saxon critical tradition of the form's inherent inferiority. (An attitude which is reflected all too readily in Durgnat's casual use of the cliché 'screaming-and-strangling'.)
In psychoanalytical terms, Black Narcissus dramatises a key Freudian syndrome: the return of the repressed. As a key syndrome, it is not surprisingly central to the cinema, as a number of writers have intimated: see, in particular, Robin Wood's convincing demonstration (Film Comment July/August 1978) that it underpins/structures the whole of the horror genre. But, in all its manifestations, both general (e.g. monsters etc. in horror movies, Indians in Westerns) and particular (narratives in which specific attempts at repression by an individual lead to the return, in some form, of 'the repressed') the dramatisation of the structure leads to melodrama: the sense of something terrible and/or uncontrollable coming/returning to haunt or plague the 'helpless' protagonist(s). (In Movie 29/30 I discuss this in relation to films where the protagonist has attempted to dispose of a dead body). In Black Narcissus 'the repressed' returns in different ways for the different characters, but it derives in general terms from the repressions inevitable in becoming a nun and running a convent in a remote part of the world. The film shows the failure of a group of nuns to establish a convent in the Himalayas. But this failure isn't charted simply, or even primarily, in terms of the intractability/foreignness/primitivism of the local people. Much more so than, for example, Ford's seven women, the nuns carry within themselves, the seeds of their own defeat.
For Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) the 'repressed' is the desire associated with a love affair in her past with a young man who subsequently deserted her and went to America. The repression is specifically linked with her becoming a nun: it was her humiliation at his desertion that brought her into the Order. At the convent at Mopu, for the first time since then, memories of this past return to her. They are shown as a series of flashbacks which are, quite simply, magnificent. At this formal level, the film is infinitely superior to Rumer Godden's novel. Most of the material in the film can in fact be found in the novel. But the novels narrative is confused and confusing, with a haphazard sense of progression, and Sister Clodagh's memories of Con blur into its generally digressive nature. In the film, by contrast, from all points of view - timing, relationship to the present psychological implications, visual beauty, emotional resonances - they are among the most stunning flashbacks in the cinema.
The novel rather laboriously spells out the association in Sister Clodagh's mind between the Young General and Con, to the extent of her having a dream in which they both 'play' Narcissus and she Echo. In the film these overtones accumulate more subtly and complexly. As Sister Clodagh's face dissolves slowly into the loch for the first flashback, in this past she is already having to repeat herself in an effort to gain the attention of the self-absorbed Con (Shaun Noble). Just as she, in the present in India, is dreaming of her past in Ireland, so he in that past is dreaming of what he feels should be his future in America. Yet, even though he rejects her in this scene, her face expresses hope for their future, and the flashback ends with a dissolve which merges Clodagh's face in the past - talking, excited, full of life - into Sister Clodagh's face in the present - silent, immobile, pensive. It is a beautiful visualisation of the change... The second flashback (the hunt) follows immediately and aurally links the past and present as the barking sounds in the hunt become the dogs barking to signal the arrival, on horseback, on the Young General (Sabu). Sister Clodagh reacts to the memory of the hunt with visible excitement, an excitement which shows us that she is not just remembering the past but re-expressing the repressed desire; displaced of course onto the hunt (in itself a sublimation). Thus she creates the conditions for 'the return of the repressed' and so the Young General 'rides in' as Con's replacement in the present.
It is, of course, the Young General who is dubbed 'Black Narcissus' by Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) - 'He's like a vain, black peacock' - the name deriving from the scent he uses, although the exoticism is hilariously undermined by his revelation that it came from the Army and Navy Stores, But, surprisingly in the light of the above, the presence of the Young General does not pose a serious threat to Sister Clodagh. The implications of his status in the structure of the return of the repressed are certainly fulfilled; his relationship with Kanchi (Jean Simmons) being the re-enactment, in sexual terms, of Con's relationship with Clodagh. Sister Clodagh was, after all, responsible for Kanchi, a responsibility which was articulated by Mr Dean (David Farrar) in terms of controlling Kanchi's sexuality. And there is a neat echo in the third flashback, when Clodagh admires herself (wearing the emerald ear-rings) in the mirror, of the moment from Kanchi's first wordless encounter with the Young General, when, jewel in-nose, she flirts with her own reflection in a mirror. (It is typical of the density of the film that this 'playing' with the notion of 'narcissism' should be thus elaborated through a whole series of characters. The culmination of this motif occurs when Ruth, wearing her 'shocking' dress, pointedly makes up her face in front of Sister Clodagh. She wields the lipstick and hand-mirror here as weapons, in defiance of the bible Sister Clodagh holds and reads).
The palace used here as a convent was built by the Young General's grandfather as a harem - it's logical that this sexual history should resurface through the Young General. It does so in fact with the assistance of Ayah (May Hallatt), the old palace retainer, who openly mourns the good old days and who seizes the opportunity to introduce the Young General into his grandfather's ways by handing him the whip she was using to beat Kanchi (for allegedly stealing a censer chain) and exhorting him to 'finish the beating and begin to be a man - like your grandfather' ... Nevertheless, the disruption that the ensuing affair could have caused to convent life is curbed. When the Young General decides that he doesn't need a whip to be a man (that either or both of them have already been turned on by the flagellation is naturally something else) he is discreet enough to run away with Kanchi, and he returns later and apologises like a gentleman.
Whereas the disruption caused by Sister Ruth's desire for Mr Dean gets spectacularly out of hand: the return of the repressed with a vengeance. At one level the series of transformations Sister Ruth undergoes (in 'mental state', actions, dress) demonstrates what I call a 'general' manifestation of the syndrome: because she is a nun, her resurgent sexuality is rendered as a sort of demonic possession, an antecedent of Regan in The Exorcist. But she is also, of course, like Sister Clodagh, experiencing the 'personal' return of her own, suppressed, sexuality. From the first mention of her in the film, Sister Ruth is descried as 'ill', as a 'problem', as someone whose vocation as a nun is in doubt. We assume subsequently that her seemingly chronic illness is psychosomatic, a manifestation of her inability to cope with being a nun, an inability which rapidly focuses on her suppressed sexuality.
But here is yet a third level of meaning to Sister Ruth's dramatic metamorphoses. She is also acting out - in an exaggerated form, a sort of madness - Sister Clodagh's own desire for Mr. Dean, which she (Sister Clodagh) must necessarily suppress. Mr. Dean is clearly the real threat to Sister Clodagh and her world, as is evident in each of their highly charged encounters. But neither can possibly admit this, for to admit it would mean the recognition of on his part love and on hers sex. Accordingly, whilst the Young General and Kanchi can happily represent an uncomplicated, if not liberated attitude to sexuality (although the Young General apologies to Sister Clodagh, he does so out of politeness, not guilt), the white hero and heroine are trapped in a denial of sexuality. Sister Ruth shows the consequences of this denial. The film is honest enough to recognise that it would be an evasion merely to siphon off the suppressed sexuality by displacing it onto 'sexual' natives. The return of the repressed as already described for Sister Clodagh is essentially a symptom: the real problem is what triggered the syndrome in the first place and her reaction to that. The first memories occur, significantly, shortly after Mr. Dean has brought Kanchi. In doing so he tells Sister Clodagh that she, Kanchi, has been a 'nuisance' to him, and delivers the marvellously provocative 'Are you sure there's no question you're dying to ask me?' Clearly it is Mr. Dean who has reawakened the repressed feelings in Sister Clodagh, but her reaction is immediately to re-repress these feelings. Sister Ruth represents the 'full-blooded' enactment of the forces resurfacing, despite and against these attempts at repression, from Sister Clodagh's unconscious. She is the monster from the Id.
Whilst these links between the characters are, in their details, unusually complex, one could summarise them as the Young General and Kanchi representing, psychoanalytically, the 'return' of Sister Clodagh's repressed past, and Sister Ruth, likewise, the 'return' of her repressed present. The latter is particularly difficult to sustain since Sister Ruth, unlike Kanchi, is a complex, albeit melodramatically 'heightened', character in her own right. In fact, she and Sister Clodagh are linked from the beginning of the film: initially in terms of the Christian sin of Pride. Pride is Sister Clodagh's first sin. When the Mother Superior (Nancy Roberts) in Calcutta informs her of her own responsibility ('You will be the youngest Sister Superior in the Order'), the latter's pride at this is marvellously conveyed by Deborah Kerr. (Teasingly, the film shows complicity in this by giving Deborah Kerr a star entrance: her face is discreetly hidden on her first appearance in a classroom and is only revealed when she appears before the Mother Superior for this scene). The Mother Superior registers disapproval, and then makes the first mention of Mr. Dean; a suggestive juxtaposition, since, from his first encounter with Sister Clodagh, Mr Dean mocks her sense of superiority ('You'd like the General, Sister - he's also a superior being'). Then, when the Mother Superior selects the nuns that will accompany Sister Clodagh to Mopu, she suggests Sister Ruth in the face of Sister Clodagh's reluctance: 'Give her responsibility: she needs to feel important'. When Sister Clodagh asks if 'it's good for her to feel important', the Mother Superior is cutting: 'Spare her some of your own importance - if you can'. The scene ends with the Mother Superior pointedly cautioning Sister Clodagh about her tendency to self-importance: 'Remember, the Superior of all is the servant of all'. Whilst this is a bald statement of the contradiction, not just for Sister Clodagh, but inherent in the Mother Superior's own position (as shown in her attitude in these early scenes), Sister Clodagh says 'I understand'. At this, the image blacks out on her, to make the transition to Mopu as a nun opens the great wooden doors leading from the courtyard to the area on the cliff edge where the mission-bell hangs. The shot is visually superb - the nun in white pushing open the dark, heavy doors to reveal the 'crystal clear' sky; the wind sweeping in to tear at her veil - but it's significant that the nun is Sister Ruth and this is, moreover, her first appearance in the film. (She, alone, is not seen in the dining-hall at the Convent in Calcutta.) Whilst ringing the mission-bell is a responsibility, the editing here makes it seem as though Sister Ruth were emerging out of Sister Clodagh's 'suppressed' pride.
But pride wasn't the only thing to suffer the pretence of suppression in Sister Clodagh's 'I understand'. The same could be said of the contradiction in the Mother Superior's words. That Sister Ruth could also be seen as expressing re-emergence, albeit in some other form, of such a Christian contradiction becomes apparent as she rings the mission-bell. In the distance, Tibetan horns respond to the bell by sending forth their own call into the mountains. Sister Ruth rings on, defiantly. And so the very act of establishing a convent in the Himalayas is shown as an act of pride. Whilst Sister Ruth's attitude and the film's narrative explicitly link her to Sister Clodagh, here, on behalf of all the nuns, including the Mother Superior, she is indeed expressing a Christian contradiction: asserting, with pride, the right to be heard.
Whilst such Christian tensions don't exactly disappear as the film progresses, they tend to be over shadowed by the more dramatic sexual tensions, particularly those centering on Sisters Clodagh and Ruth and Mr. Dean. The first time the three of them meet together in the narrative is suitably dramatic. Mr. Dean is with Sister Clodagh and Briony (Judith Furse) when Sister Ruth bursts in, her white habit spattered with blood. Whilst Sister Ruth has a perfectly 'natural' explanation for this - she was trying to stop a woman from bleeding - the immediate overtones are striking: the suggestion of defloration, or even devilish practices. In any event, both she and Sister Clodagh rise swiftly to the occasion. Sister Ruth 'plays to' the presence of Mr. Dean by giving a dramatic rendering of her story (rather as, later, the whipped Kanchi screams twice as loudly when she sees the Young General approaching); Sister Clodagh immediately tries to suppress her: telling her she should have fetched Sister Briony and sending her back to her room, like a naughty child. (Even so, Sister Clodagh's structural link with Ayah in the later scene is suggestive. Whilst Ayah is making a point of punishing Kanchi for her 'sexuality' - the censer was for personal adornment - secretly she wants the Young General and Kanchi to 'get together'. The link thus suggests an anticipation of Sister Clodagh's later, unconscious, wishes about Sister Ruth.).
Thereafter, Sister Ruth's interest in Mr. Dean is insistent and unremitting. Eventually Sister Clodagh summons her for a talk. She wants Sister Ruth to admit what's been 'worrying' her, and, although the latter says 'I can't speak of it to anyone', the persistent visual presence of a bell-handle on the desk spells out what it is that cannot be spoken. Consciously or no, Black Narcissus is riddled with sexual symbols, both visual and verbal. Pursuing her questioning, Sister Clodagh even picks up and plays with a pencil (which surely tells us that Sister Ruth's problem is hers, too) and then finally comes out with as much of the problem as is speakable, suggesting that Sister Ruth has been 'thinking too much of Mr. Dean'. Immediately Sister Ruth retorts 'All the same, I notice you're very pleased to see him yourself!' She speaks Sister Clodagh's 'unspeakable' thoughts.
It's after this that Sister Ruth's double function - as both a character in her own right but also representing, in a dramatic form, the drives of Sister Clodagh's unconscious - comes fully into play. As 'herself' Sister Ruth sees, with the heightened perception of jealously, that Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean are strongly attracted to each other, perhaps even love each other. And so, even though in offering herself to Mr. Dean she dares to do what Sister Clodagh herself dare not, she knows it will be futile. And so, finally, in the 'madness', she has to kill Sister Clodagh, to obliterate this obstacle to her expression of sexuality. Whereas, from Sister Clodagh's point of view, Sister Ruth - in giving up her vows, dressing in a deep crimson dress (a subtler colour than the scarlet that Raymond Durgnat hallucinates, since, in certain shots, it looks a witch-like black), putting on make-up and going to Mr. Dean - is carrying out her, Sister Clodagh's 'forbidden' desires. Of course, consciously Sister Clodagh must make every attempt to stop Sister Ruth doing this; to act as controlling Ego to this dangerous Id. And so, catching the transformed Ruth in her cell, Sister Clodagh sits with her to keep watch on her. But eventually, Sister Clodagh drops of to sleep, which is not merely an expression of her unconscious with that Ruth should be able to escape, but actually makes Ruth's slipping out seem like the enactment of Sister Clodagh's dream.
Awaking, Sister Clodagh cannot imagine where Ruth has gone: her unconscious remains inaccessible to her conscious. The nuns search the convent and grounds wildly; we then see Ruth, making her way through the jungle way below: an image as electrifying in its overtones as the equivalent transition to the everglades for the final sequence of Ruby Gentry. Mr. Dean, it seems, lives in the jungle. Indeed, as Ruth enters his house, he stands, silently watching the trees, like a jungle animal. However, when inside, he sees who it is, he quickly rejects her advances. Then, her accusation that he loves Sister Clodagh rouses him to anger: 'I don't love anyone!' The vehemence with which he says this (plus the sudden close-up of his face in a 'melodramatic' red light) clearly expresses it contrary: Ruth's reaction is to faint, 'Clodagh!' echoing in her ears. This leads to Ruth's final metamorphosis. When she reawakes, she seems calm, and leaves Mr. Dean to return to the convent. He watches her go, and the image dissolves from him to Sister Clodagh, waiting outside the convent for Ruth's return. The dissolve thus links hero and heroine, but both are busy sublimating, through their 'concern' for Ruth, the feelings they have for each other. Moreover, both have denied to Ruth that they have such feelings. And so it's as if Ruth, in her final, stunning, reappearance - as madwoman bent on Sister Clodagh's destruction - were expressing the 'return' of the combined repressions of Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean. This is the classic horror move syndrome as analysed by Robin Wood: that the sexuality that is 'repressed' between the hero and heroine gives birth to a monster, which 'returns', archetypal, to attack the heroine. But few horror movies can have represented the syndrome with such thoroughness and complexity. Ruth's final manifestation is both the return of the repressed forces in Sister Clodagh's own unconscious, rising up out of control to annihilate her, and a hideous distortion of Mr. Dean's suppressed feelings for Sister Clodagh, mediated through the 'wild animal' imagery.
Ruth's fall to her death, witnessed in horror by Sister Clodagh, is the final, traumatic event which obliges the nuns to leave Mopu. But it also acts as a cathartic release for Sister Clodagh - like an abreaction - enabling her finally to acknowledge, albeit implicitly, her feelings for Mr. Dean. On the surface, the scene in which she says goodbye to him merely reaffirms the repression of their feelings for each other . But the scene has a clear sub-text, which 'speaks' the opposite. Both of them make reference to the 'ghosts' they have been left with, and in a decidedly ambiguous sense: Sister Clodagh even in terms which suggest that her memories of Mopu will be like her memories of Ireland. Then she asks Mr. Dean to do 'one last thing - look after the grave'. Such an act, to be done by him, for her, is a marvellous encapsulation of their situation. While deriving a source from a mixture of guilt and Christian responsibility, in more poetic terms it is (a) the final sublimation, performed again through an outward display of concern for Ruth, which is (b) only apparently ironic (Ruth, after all, is the major agent in driving them apart: geographically at least) since it is (c) a conscious sublimation, carrying the clear overtones of the duties of a lover (Mr. Dean will do it because Sister Clodagh asked him and is also (d) peculiarly apt: in view of Ruth's symbolic function in the movie. In a way, the 'monster' will be mourned. Sister Clodagh then offers her hand to Mr. Dean: he holds, rather than shakes it. The gesture is as eloquent as in Jane Austen. And, in the final shots, as rain begins to fall and Mr. Dean, in close-up, watches the procession of nuns ride out of sight, there is a wealth of understated feeling.
Whilst the above gives some indication of the richness of the film from a predominantly psychoanalytical perspective, this is by no means its only virtue. The visual beauty of the film has in fact been widely recognised - Jack Cardiff won an Oscar: - but it's important to stress that this beauty is not mere ornamentation, but part of the film's rich, poetic texture. Black Narcissus, whilst being set in India, is in the tradition of Sternberg's films, where a 'poetic evocation' of a country is created in the studio. In Powell's own words (quoted in the BFI booklet) this enabled ' the atmosphere (to be) carefully and meticulously built up'. This emphasis on atmosphere gives the film a haunting, poetic quality which is extremely difficult to write about. To illustrate, one could point to the use, in the moments building up the film's climax, of red-brown lighting, so that, for example, when Sister Clodagh washes her face in a trough to refresh herself, the water look almost blood-red. It is true that these shots are steadily building up tension - Ruth is spying on Sister Clodagh, virtually haunting her, but Sister Clodagh, whilst sensing her presence, never manages to turn round in time to see her - and the use of such red lighting contributes to the atmosphere of tension, but, apart from signalling dawn, the redness has no clear meaning, and tends to sound crude in description, the opposite of the experienced effect.
At the same time, part of the challenge in filming the novel is the creation of the 'strange' atmosphere of the setting which is, ultimately, 'inexplicable'. Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) is the first to register it (when she gazes entranced at the distant mountains when she should be at prayer) and the first to succumb to it (when she plants flowers instead of the 'necessary' vegetables). And, whilst her reference to the long forgotten memories that have started to come back to her link her experience into the general pattern, in her case there is no 'explanation'. 'I think you can see too far' she says on the first occasion, and, when her flowers start to come up in the spring (a horticultural return of the repressed (!) since the flowers are predominantly English) she says she thinks there are only two ways of living in the place: ignore it, like Mr. Dean, or give yourself up to it, like the Holy Man.
The Holy Man, who remains transfixed in his position looking out over the mountain all through the narrative, introduces Hindu mysticism into the movie. A living demonstration of the 'ultimate' Hindu equation of Atman ('self') and Braham ('god') his indifference to all mundane activity represents the antithesis of the Christian notion of 'good works' which the nuns are busy performing. The convent is not set up with the overt aim of converting the local people: it provides a dispensary, and a school for the local girls, social functions of the kind that have no real place in traditional Hinduism or Buddhism. When the convent is first established, the General (Esmond Knight) - who, as the owner of the palace, had the idea of a convent in the first place - is obliged to pay the people to attend. The film could easily have gone on from this to show that the services of the nuns were in a fundamental sense culturally 'unacceptable'. An earlier mission of monks had inexplicably failed. And certainly there is, eventually, a crisis with the local people, a crisis which arises out of 'excessive' Christian concern on the part of one of the nuns. Sister Blanch (Jenny Laird) ignores Sister Briony's instructions and tries to help a very sick child. The nuns are then blamed (as Mr. Dean had warned) for the death of the child and are promptly boycotted as dangerous by the people. Nevertheless, it would be a simplification to describe this as a major reason for the failure of the convent. Talking to Mr. Dean at this point, Sister Clodagh mentions, not the people, but the place as ''overwhelming' them. Telling him that Sister Philippa is leaving, and Sister Ruth isn't renewing her vows, she ends with an agonised outburst 'I couldn't stop the wind from blowing, and the air from being as clear as crystal, and I couldn't hide the mountain'.
In itself extraordinarily moving the outburst nevertheless tells us that it is the internal susceptibility of the nuns which allows the atmosphere of the place to overwhelm them. (It's in this scene that Sister Clodagh talks for the first time of her past love affair.) Characteristically, Sister Briony, the most 'robust' run, is not at all affected by the atmosphere. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the atmosphere is' mystical', an expression of the 'power' of the local gods. Whilst Ruth waits in her cell with Sister Clodagh for her opportunity to escape, Powell marks the passage of time with shots of a steadily diminishing candle (on the table between the women) and punctuates these with shots of a mural of naked women (somewhere in the palace). Now, in moving into the palace, the nuns had of course set out to remove or conceal such unfortunate reminders of the harem. And so these shots are another statement of the central theme: Ruth's resurgent sexuality being related to the irrepressible history of the place (the burning candle being, of course, a Christian symbol). This relatively simple equation is then brilliantly compounded. As Ruth flees down the corridor, she catches a lace curtain, thereby uncovering a statue of the dancing Shiva (Nataraja) which the curtain was intended to conceal. Since, in traditional Hinduism, Shiva is 'the destroyer', this is doubly significant. Ruth, in her 'madness', is unleashing the forces which will destroy the convent. But here these forces are expressed in terms of the local Gods resurfacing through the cracks created by the explosion of Christian repressions, returning to reclaim 'their own'. As Sister Clodagh falls asleep, enabling Ruth to escape, the bible falls from her hand.
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