Thursday, 5 January 2017

Black Narcissus (1947)

Fig 1: Poster
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger' s Black Narcissus (1947) is a melodrama and religious drama film. It tells a story about 5 nuns (Sister Clodagh, Sister Briony, Sister Blanche, Sister Philippa and Sister Ruth) who are sent to Mopu in the Himalayas in order to run a school and hospital for the locals. Shortly after their arrival at the place Sister Clodagh is visited by the General's agent, Mr. Dean who appears arrogant and cynical; he is disagreeing with the Order changing the place and predicts that the nuns will leave before the rain comes. As time goes the Sisters find their tasks harder and harder and starting to give up one-by-one, as they are isolated and they find the sensual atmosphere of the place unsettling and distracting. Sister Ruth finds interest in Mr. Dean and is confronted by Sister Clodagh. Later when Sister Clodagh is discussing her uneasiness about Mopu and her sad memories with Mr. Dean, who suggest that Sister Clodagh completely leaves nunnery which she refuses, but they are unaware that Sister Ruth is overhearing their conversation. Later at night Sister Clodagh finds Sister Ruth in a red dress instead on her nun uniform and is told that Sister Ruth is leaving behind being a nun. By the morning Sister Ruth escapes and rushes to Mr. Dean's hous where she confesses her love for him, but he rejects causing Sister Ruth to be heartbroken and turn against Sister Clodagh. When Sister Clodagh is about to ring the bell on top of the cliff she is attacked by Sister Ruth, who after a struggling fight falls to her death. This loss convinces the rest of the nuns to leave the place behind and return to where they came from. Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh say their goodbyes and as the nuns leave the village rain starts to fall.
Fig 2: Sister Clodagh, Sister Ruth and Mr. Dean
"Made the same year that Britain gave India its independence, Black Narcissus partially demonstrates why British occupancy failed in the first place, but its approach is far from political." (Cole, 2010) As the nuns are sent to the Himalayas to not only educate children (including teaching them English) and set up a hospital, but they also practice and teach Christianity. Given the location of the village and observing not only the environment but the locals as well, it is clear that they have different beliefs and as the nuns are trying to change the place, it clearly indicates the relationship between Britain and India.

But this is not the main focus of the film. "Yet his presence, and especially Dean's, put the nuns on edge, and we soon see that many may have come to escape their own sexuality." (Cole, 2010) The film is filled with suggestions and sensuality, while it may be described as erotic, it is more heavy on the sensual side with visible tension and symbols. Firstly, where the nuns are staying was for the ruler's harem and there are paintings on the wall showing naked and half naked women, which frustrates the nuns and is asked to be taken off. Also, when spring arrives there are main focuses on blooming flowers, which said to represent not only female organs, but also reproduction. Furthermore, there is visible interest between the young village girls and the young General. Lastly, as mentioned the nuns came to escape their sexuality with taking their vows and becoming nuns. But Sister Ruth cannot take the strong sensuality of the place and gives up nunnery. She changes her white uniform for a red dress and applies red lipstick, which represent her throwing away 'purity and innocence' and becoming more of a seductive woman rather than a nun."From then on, she [Ruth] is more woman than nun. Her white habit, splashed with blood, indicates the sexing of the character. In the same image, menstrual blood and the symbolical loss of virginity are displayed, as they will be again later in the red dress that will replace the uniform and advertise her difference from the rest." (ThiƩry, s.d)
Fig 3: Sister Ruth covered in blood
Fig 4: Sister Ruth applying the red lipstick

"The palace of Mopu, the former harem turned convent where most of the action takes place, was designed by Alfred Junge and was built at Pinewood. The Himalayan backdrop was painted on sheets of glass and the mountain breeze supplied by a gigantic wind machine." (Petrie, s.d.) The set appears to be huge and like it was really filmed at the Himalayas, which they achieved by adding matte paintings. These paintings helped them create the illusion of a huge open space, such as the upper shot of the bell on the top of the cliff where the view shows the valley. There are numerous times when exotic flowers and plants are shown which were filmed at an exotic garden in Britain, but the angles and the equally exotic backgrounds may convince the audience that everything was really filmed somewhere else. The difference in buildings, colours and their style also empathise the Western and Eastern differences, such as the catholic church where the nuns have came from and the interior of the former king's palace.
Fig 5: Matte painting technique

There is also a huge difference between the colours that are shown at different locations and the clothing of the people. At the beginning of the movie the audience is presented the simple and white environment of the church and the completely white uniform of the nuns. But as they arrive to the Himalayas everything is covered with colours. This helps the story to move along, as the colours and lighting tell the story."But it is precisely his use of color that drives the story: extroverted as Byron's acting may be, the film draws its tension from the gradual shift in lighting and hue as more and more color seeps into the film even as it grows darker and darker." (Cole, 2010) There are scenes where the colours and lighting plays a very serious role in setting the mood/atmosphere, telling emotions and showing meanings. For example, when Sister Ruth returns from Mr. Deans house after the rejection, she appears very dark as she hides in the shadows and the lighting is poor, it suggest her emotional state.

Fig 6: Strong colours
Fig 7: Sister Ruth's transformation
Sister Ruth is a very important character in the movie, as her transformation from a nun to a suggestively mad 'monstrous' woman plays an important role in the story line. When she is rejected by Dean, she is shown with wet dark hair clinging to her forehead and there is a dark red shade under her eyes, which enhances the idea that she has gone mad and she is emotionally disturbed. It is a frightening look for her as during the whole movie she is seen as a pure and innocent nun, and at the end she appears scary with her dark hair, eyes and red/black dress , as well as her hard expression and sharp long features. But its worth to mention that while the nuns were always fully clothed and there is hardly any feminine features shown (as almost only their faces can be seen from under the uniform) they are not objectified and sexualised. However, on the other hand "Like the natives, Dean is also sexualized in terms of appearance with his brightly coloured shirts and bare arms and legs, contrasting with the ascetic off-white habits of the nuns. At one moment of crisis he arrives on the scene stripped to the waist, giving us a wonderfully potent image of raw male sexuality." (Petrie, s.d.) It is not that often that male characters are the ones that show more skin and the emphasis is on their sexual features.
Fig 8: Shirtless Mr. Dean
Fig 9: Sister Ruth's eyes


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