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Black Narcissus: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Jean Simmons, and Sabu

Written and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

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Review by Damon Houx

"I live cinema. I chose the cinema when I was very young, 16 years old, and from then on my memories virtually coincide with the history of the cinema.... I'm not a director with a personal style, I am simply cinema. I have grown up with and through cinema; everything that I've had in the way of education has been through the cinema; insofar as I'm interested in images, in books, in music, it's all due to the cinema."

— Michael Powell in Midi-Minuit Fantastique, Oct. 1968

"I think that a film should have a good story, a clear story, and it should have if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing - it should have a little bit of magic ... Magic being untouchable and very difficult to cast, you can't deal with it at all. You can only try to prepare some nests, hoping that a little bit of magic will slide into them."

— Emeric Pressburger, New York City, 1980

All great movies have magic in them. What makes bad movies bad is often obvious, which makes them easy to dissect, whereas greatness in movies is often inexplicable. If then great movies are alchemy and bad movies are science, then Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were alchemists.

Powell and Pressburger became partners with their film production company The Archers after getting fed up with being told what to do by others in the British film industry. Their first effort was One of Our Aircraft is Missing in 1942, and the two collaborated as The Archers until Battle of the River Plate in 1956 (though the two worked together after that, it was never in the same capacity). Powell achieved infamy without Pressburger in 1960 with the release of the controversial Peeping Tom, and he is now regarded as one of the greatest of British directors. But it was their work together that made one of the greatest series of films in the history of cinema, and one of the richest partnerships. Powell and Pressburger (Powell is credited as being the director half, and Pressburger as the writer half, though both are credited as the writers-directors during their partnership) created such memorable films as Life and Death of Colonel Blimp(1943) and The Red Shoes (1948). Black Narcissus, released in 1947, is based on the Rumer Godden novel, a story of repressed nuns — a loaded topic that takes masters to tell.

When a rich general gives a large temple in the Himalayas to an English nunnery, five nuns are sent to colonize it and assist the locals. Sister Clodah (Deborah Kerr) is put in charge of the new convent, and though she thinks she's up to the task, she is viewed by some as too young and too arrogant for the assignment. Most of the nuns sent with her are meant to be helpful, but Sister Clodah is also given the difficult Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who acts and feels out of place in the nunnery. As the nuns move in, they are helped by a cynical, attractive white man Mr. Dean (David Farrah), who thinks that the women will not be able to adapt to a strange, new culture. He should know — he's seen the palace go through many hands, and perhaps because the temple used to be the home of the old rajah's kept women, something about the location makes it hard for people to remain dedicated to their passions while staying there.

Mr. Dean acts as an advisor for the nuns, and though they need his help, he frustrates them by not keeping his passions in check. Adding to the sexually charged atmosphere, the nuns are given a young girl to watch over (Jean Simmons), who is seventeen, of marrying age, and desperately looking for a husband. There's also a local prince (Sabu) who has come to receive an education, but unfortunately is an eligible bachelor — stylish and intriguing and wearing Black Narcissus, a cologne from England. As the film progresses, the tension in the nunnery grows. Sisters Ruth and Clodah find themselves drawn to Mr. Dean, though Clodah can't admit it; Ruth is easily provoked and soon troublesome; one of the nuns plants flowers instead of food; and as the seasons change, Clodah is drawn to reflecting on her previous life, which makes it harder for her to behave like a nun, especially around the attractive Mr. Dean.

Using any religious group as a film's subject-matter has to be done carefully, as it is easy to fall into the trap of bad metaphorical content — among other obvious pitfalls. What Powell and Pressburger do in Black Narcissus is invest in the characters, and then illustrate their spiritual decay. As a British film, one might expect Black Narcissus to cover the kind of stiff-upper-lip, bottled-emotions territory of Merchant-Ivory or David Lean — it is surprising then how sensual and evocative the film is.

Jack Cardiff won an Oscar for his color cinematography in Black Narcissus, and his luscious three-strip Technicolor imagery well deserved the award. But equally, it's Powell's use of the colorful Himalayas to imply the inner passions of the nuns that makes the photography so excellent — a brilliant creative choice, and the film smolders because of it. As the nuns slowly reveal their pent-up frustrations, Powell masterfully guides us through their desires, so that when the film reaches its harrowing climax, it never feels forced, although it is shocking and effective just the same. Black Narcissus even has a tenuous relationship with horror films — hard to believe, but there are shots of an insane-looking Ruth that must have been inspired by Val Lewton, and influential on both Herk Harvey and George Romero (the latter a huge Powell-Pressburger fan). She's practically a zombie.

Also well-handled in Black Narcissus is the underlying subtext about British colonization — a potent subject, especially after World War II. The British nuns arrive in this foreign land to change their new environment, but the film shows us that these characters are more affected by their surroundings, rather than having any effect upon them. Instructed from their arrival never to take serious medical cases from the villagers, from the beginning they are impotent; if they fail, they will be rejected out of superstition. And when they ignore their instructions (to help a dying baby), they are finally ostracized. Trying to control an unfamiliar environment provokes their own problems — being unable to adapt to their setting keeps them prisoner to failure.

Among the most important of mid-20th century film directors, Michael Powell was fully immersed in cinema. His sense of style, pacing, and composition make Black Narcissus a sumptuous marvel, matched by Pressburger's subtle and well-constructed screenplay. At 100 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace, and the special effects are impressive — with the wind effects and the lighting, it's hard to believe that it was shot entirely in England, with extensive use of matte paintings. But even as one of the most beautiful films ever photographed, Black Narcissus has not stood the test of time well. Criterion has restored and remastered the film as well as is likely possible, but unfortunately with a film like this, the three-print color processing creates added dilemmas. The inconsistencies in any one piece of the negative allow for some inconsistency in color levels, and it seems as if the negatives have not been properly preserved. Often, colors shift slightly in the film background, and though Criterion was working with available elements, it is a constant problem that proves hard to ignore. But for those who have suffered through bad home-video versions of Black Narcissus, it will be a minor trifle — the colors are gorgeous, and the transfer allows for the almost-powdered Technicolor look that makes Jack Cardiff's work here so opulent. The Rembrant influence is obvious, and something he mentions in the included documentary about the shoot.

Black Narcissus was one of Criterion's first Laserdiscs — released with analog audio, it had no extras other than an audio commentary with Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell. This track has been preserved on the DVD edition, and it is marvelous to listen to, as Scorsese, though muted, is obviously enthusiastic about the film. Powell was near the end of his life (he died in 1990) when the track was recorded, but he has some solid observations about the shoot. Also included is a 27-minute documentary on Jack Cardiff's cinematography on the film, which features interviews with Cardiff, Kathleen Byron (who still looks beautiful), Scorsese, and Ian Christie, among others. The feature is an excerpt of a longer career-profile documentary on Cardiff, but it includes some nice bits of information on the film, and on the Technicolor process as well. Also on board are some production stills, photos of deleted scenes, and a theatrical trailer. Black Narcissus may not have the riches of Criterion's The Red Shoes, but it is a solid disc from the most important (and probably the best) DVD producer.

— Damon Houx

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