Black Narcissus Review

Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, the story and theme of Black Narcissus is a simple one, characteristic of much British colonialist literature and filmmaking, from Conrad, Kipling and Greene to Merchant Ivory’s adaptations of E.M. Forster - the awakening of repressed urges for English colonists and missionaries and the temptation and dangers of “going native” as they struggle to retain their essential English reserve while finding a way to adapt to other climates, and communicate with other civilisations with different ways of living. The outcome is consequently never in doubt, but what places Black Narcissus among the best of this examples of this kind of filmmaking is its treatment by Powell and Pressburger and, above all - as perhaps John Huston realised when he came to approach a similar situation in The African Queen - through the remarkable cinematography of Jack Cardiff.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) of the Convent of the order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta is honoured by being appointed the youngest Sister Superior in the order, but the mission she has been given to supervise is a difficult one – the setting up of a school and hospital for the villagers of Mopu, 9,000 feet up in the Himalayas. Initially, the difficulties of converting the old Palace of the local dignitary, known as The General, are overcome thanks to the help of his assistant, an Englishman called Mr Dean (David Farrar). He finds workers to convert the palace for its new purpose, provides suitable mediators from the village and assures that there is a flow of wary locals to Saint Faith. But there are other hardships and difficulties the nuns have to endure in the extreme climates of the Himalayas – not least of which is the peculiar effect the place has on emphasising and exaggerating the characteristics and desires each of women struggle to keep suppressed.

Every single frame of Black Narcissus is a thing of exquisite beauty, particularly as it is seen in this remarkable restoration of the film undertaken for the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Michael Powell. It’s not however merely aesthetically pleasing – though visually it could hardly be more striking through Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and Alfred Junge’s set designs (both Oscar winners for this film) and the remarkable colouring of the Technicolor process – but the expressionistic look and feel of every scene also serves a definite purpose, supporting the heightened emotions, the inner desires and the torment of each of the nuns. The weather and the seasons play a huge part in this - the constant blowing of the wind, ruffling the flowing robes of the nuns, conveying the constant unease of their situation, while the frigid coldness of the winter giving way to the passionate feverish heat of the summer represents the journey the nuns undergo and the limits to what their delicately balanced constitution and mental health can bear. The palace itself, “The House of Women” with its erotic murals, a one-time harem for the General’s father, also plays a large part in the dangerous nature of what the nuns have to endure - its vertiginous heights further expressing the dangerous madness into which Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is slipping. The underlying eroticism, the scent of the Black Narcissus, is also physically present in the exotic sensual presence of Jean Simmons’ Kechi, whose attraction is too much for the Young General (Sabu) to resist. “I think there are only two ways of living in this place”, Flora Robson’s Sister Philippa observes, “live like Mr Dean or the Holy Man – ignore it or give yourself up to it”.

Outwardly however - other than the difficulties she has to endure in managing the problems the other nuns encounter - the Palace of Mopu seems to have little effect on Sister Clodagh’s personality, who is consequently the more complex and most interesting character in the film. Superbly underplayed by Deborah Kerr, her asceticism a marked contrast to the madness and exoticism around her, her eyes often beautifully framed in her wimple often in close-up with shadows falling across her face (once that of a cross), she manages to convey much more of the inner struggle her character is undergoing and her determination to see through her mission and succeed where others failed. The reasons for her personal traits and characteristics are alluded to in a few flashback scenes that are more intriguing for their importance to her as memories than for any light they actually shed on her former life or her reasons for taking the veil. Despite her best efforts however, Sister Clodagh must inevitably fail against the powerful primeval passions that are unlocked in such a fantastical place, but perhaps she gains something more important - a greater awareness of her own humanity.

Black Narcissus is released in France by the Institut Lumière. The DVD is presented as a 2-disc set, in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. The disc is entirely English friendly, with removable French subtitles from the film, and all extra features either in English, or subtitled in English. The DVD set has previously been available individually (under its French title of Le Narcisse Noir), but has now been collected in one of two Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger boxsets. The DVD is available from the Institut Lumière website.

Restored and remastered by Granada for the Michael Powell centenary in Cannes 2005, Black Narcissus quite frankly looks stunning on this French DVD edition prepared by the Institute Lumière de Lyon. 60 years old, the presentation here shows a film that look better than many modern films on DVD. Virtually flawless, the Technicolor process is allowed to fully express the power and colour of the dramatically designed sets, lighting and colouration. The level of clarity and sharpness is astonishing, conveying textures with remarkable detail, never looking clinical or enhanced. Brightness, contrast and colour levels simply perfect, creating blacks that in scenes of darkness simply swallow up figures into their inner torments. The stability of the transfer is also very impressive with neither a flicker in the lighting nor in the compression of the digital transfer. Fluctuations in the balance of the three-strip process occasionally allow reds and greens to alternately dominate, but they are so slight as to be barely perceptible.

The audio track is also quite impressive. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, it has a steely edge with some sibilance and a slight tendency for sounds to crackle at higher registers. Nonetheless, there is more than adequate depth of tone and little analogue background noise.

There are no hard of hearing English subtitles here, only optional French subtitles.

The extra features are spread across the two discs. Disc one contains a Preface (3:22) by Martin Scorcese – a filmed tribute recorded for the 2005 Michael Powell centenary celebration in Cannes. There is a further Introduction (8:22) by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, covering many aspects of the film’s making, its cast, its themes and treatment. Original Trailers are also included for Black Narcissus (2:27), The Red Shoes (2:22) and The 49th Parallel (3:01).

Disc 2 contains the main extra features, providing an in-depth look at Black Narcissus and its place among Powell and Pressburger’s films. Memories of Michael (9:25) is the 4th part of a longer interview with Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell spread over the other discs in the collection. Here, with illustrative clips from his films, she gives her impressions of Black Narcissus and talks about Powell’s approach and technique.

The Daring Of An Adventurer (17:25) is a more detailed examination of the film by Bertrand Tavernier who, along with Martin Scorcese, is responsible for helping the work of Powell and Pressburger achieve wider recognition. Here he looks at the genesis of the work, the casting, the crew working on the film and how the Himalayan locations were recreated entirely on the Pinewood Studios.

The Profile of Black Narcissus (24:00) was made for Carlton in 2000. Jack Cardiff, Kathleen Byron and assistant editor Noreen Ackland provide information and anecdotes on the filming of Black Narcissus, while film historian Ian Christie provides some commentary and looks at it as part of Powell and Pressburger’s oeuvre.

Painting With Light (25:37) has many of the same participants as the previous featurette – with the addition of Martin Scorcese – and contains many of the same anecdotes, but focuses more on the craft of Jack Cardiff, his artistic influences and fascinating information on the Technicolor process.

This Is Colour (13:50) is an information feature financed by ICI where Jack Cardiff was the director of Technicolor photography. It looks at the application of colour through dyes and the chemical process that makes them. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Visually, Black Narcissus is one of the most remarkable films you will ever see, but more than that, it uses every magnificent scene to draw out the unspoken desires and torments of its characters. 60 years later, those breathtaking Technicolor images still have a tremendous power that has never waned and has never been surpassed. The new French edition from the Institut Lumière is impressive, presenting the film in all its splendour and supporting it with a full set of informative and interesting extra features.

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