Update late 2018:
Upon another re-watch, I remain enamored of Black Narcissus, not only the truly sublime potency of its art but its more silent intimations of unknown forces and mysterious evocations beyond the mental capacity of its protagonists, and possibly us, to register. With Black Narcissus, Powell and Pressburger, with an irrevocable assist from cinematographer Jack Cardiff, conjure the transcendent powers of terrifying, exhausting melodrama. Not melodrama as it is usually understand, as a beacon of deceit, but melodrama as the possible reality which we repress from considerations of the rational, the moments and suggestions and sensations which fluctuate and flutter outside the bounds and demarcations of European rationalism’s vision of realism and reality.
Insofar as the narrative is essentially the push-pull of colonial forces colonizing the boundaries of the sensible, to cop from Ranciere, the most telling intimations in Black Narcissus are not the ones which seemingly corrupt the missionaries at the heart of the tale but the ones which intoxicate and haunt the film’s periphery, the ghosts of other realities and mysteries which are not assimilable to that colonizing vision of what kinds of images can and should be “sensible”. It is the alluring mystery of Black Narcissus that the film transcends the “sensible” reality the protagonists would wish to impart upon it. Not so we can transcend to a higher reality inaccessible to them, but so the film can evoke the unknown intrinsic to any state of being. And, unforgettably, to revoke the supposed ability of British empire to truly colonize that unknown.
Michael Powell, especially when paired with his long-time partner in crime Emeric Pressburger, was a director cripplingly ahead of his time (although they shared credits, Pressburger favored writing and Powell handled most of the behind-the-camera work). Literally crippling, in fact, for his provocative, lurid, deeply confrontational 1960 horror Peeping Tom, at that point perhaps the most daring and subversive commentary on filmmaking and film-watching ever released, essentially killed his career. Dark-hearted in a way even Hitch’s fellow 1960 release, Psycho, never approached, Peeping Tom grabbed a world not ready for it and shoved itself right up into humanity’s soul with voyeuristic, directly implicating POV filmmaking and sickly green hues to induce malaise and shock. It was an atomic final gasp on one of the all-time directorial careers.
But, even in his greatest public successes, Powell courted controversy. A Matter of Life and Death fiendishly bridged black and white and color to turn a long unstated American-British mental battleground into the stuff of anxious legal drama. His greatest films with Pressburger, however, prefaced Peeping Tom’s fascination with the dialectics of power and obsession, and saw storytelling primarily as a means to experiment with a sensational, boisterous color finishing school that tied up the seems of his swelling, sweaty emotions as they lashed out on the screen. The Red Shoes, possibly his longest-lasting art house shriek, found heated passion on the knife’s edge of burning to a crisp and etched it on to the screen in frenzied red strokes.
But the most vivid, heightened exploration of pulpy, melodramatic sexual craving and raw appetite to bear the Powell and Pressburger name is their 1947 descent into psycho-sexual repression and Western neo-imperialism, the evocatively titled Black Narcissus. A moral fable about human distance and the Western world making play with other cultures, Narcissus centers a convent of nuns in the sultry, cavernous Himalayan mountains, the group having ventured there with the lie of a moral high ground. Headed by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the convent is deeply committed to its vision of improving the non-Western world with their patented one-two punch of moral restriction and Christian fever. And as Powell’s perturbed eye and gracious, caressing camera movements, it is fever, all around, from the highest tips of the turgid, frigid Himalayan mountains to the haunted, lusciously green troughs underneath, all the way to the shifty eyes and sewn-shut lips ready to burst, especially of the unhinged Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), in between. Tensions brew as characters talk past one another and hide deeper desires that see the sexual as equal parts physical and mental. Meanwhile, Powell’s camera rustles about and peers into their lives, mourning the lost souls doomed to his ever-closeted location, murmuring a secret or two to bide the time.
Scarred and secreted, Narcissus sees Powell’s greatest talent as director in full scale: evoking internal emotions in the external world. A true landscape-of-the-mind in the most literal sense, the hyper-saturated colors that tap into the lustful regions beyond realism (by Powell and Pressburger’s knight in shining armor, cinematographer Jack Cardiff) and fog-ridden dreamlike aura reflect not so much the truth of the Himalayas but the Orientalist internalized view, mystical and magisterial, shared by its characters. Patronizing do-gooders all, they share two things: an inability to truly address the Himalayas as a landscape, nor the people who call it home, on their own terms, and the human frailty to be subsumed by their would-be superiority. This is a film of high, fable-like atmosphere that seeps out of the characters into the environment, and then wafts right back into their souls to tear them apart.
As an indictment of church culture, Black Narcissus is shockingly blunt, caustically positioning the one male, a Mr. Dean (David Farrar) who had tried and failed to “change” the natives of the Himalayas before, as a would-be moral force of truth who ends up a conniving vise leering and posturing for the women all the same. The film certainly subscribes to a certain mid-century Freudianism whereby characters all behave according to Darwinian drives. But it ties this singularity to its dueling strengths of timeless diorama-like visual splendor and pointed, timely understanding of socialization and religious neo-imperialism. Thus it avoids, at great expense and clarity, the pitfalls of many of even Hitch’s films, that of locating in an essentialized “womankind” a certain proneness to sexual outburst and irrational behavior. As the tag-team filmmakers reveal it, the only thing irrational about the characters’ behavior is their subscription to religious rationalism in the first place, and to thinking they can better the Himalayan culture when they talk down to it in the first place.
As for the sexual outburst itself, ever sweltering and always boiling up to the surface in those stunning, all-time visuals, Powell and Pressburger carefully and cautiously ferment a high-temperature argument wherein the cause of the seething sensuality is the holier-than-thou combination of smug Western superiority and buttoned-up religious repression. Both of which never allow the women to express themselves in their forced silence to their cause, and both ultimately sway their minds to toil and trouble until they are lost to themselves. The black narcissus of the title is in their hearts, it would seem, but it’s also in the cloth forced upon them, and the self-fixation of the Western world on its own worldview at the expense of even considering another (then again, there are still limits to this line of critique in the film; the finished work suffers as a political critique immeasurably for not affording any agency to the colonized subjects themselves).
That the filmmakers “got away” with such a radical argument, and in particular that they couched it in a combination of boilerplate melodrama and fever-pitched hysterics, is almost unthinkable when looking back today on the landscape of English-language film in 1947. Perhaps it’s because stuck-up cinema history has done its best to gloss over, or at least diminish the importance of, the radicals and provocateurs of classical English language cinema, from Ray to Laughton (one film strong) to Fuller, and perhaps Powell and Pressburger most of all. Not only is their thesis on society uncommonly textured and pinpoint for the time period, but Powell’s thesis on cinema is even more radical. In an age of black-and-white crystalline storytelling, where color was more a low-brow kitsch value than a true mechanism of mood and emotion (Disney and Wizard of Oz accepted), Powell struck out a claim and transformed a gimmick into one of the finest means of distilling the sensory experiences of the human mind and setting the screen awash with them. His films don’t simply use color – they elevate it. They understand not only the delicate mixture of hew and composition in static shots a la landscape painting, but they master something more complicated and more central to film: tempo and editing. In other words, they maneuver the beauty of the distinctly moving image that is film to shape and transform single colors based on their presence on screen before or after other colors. Black Narcissus is rough and world-weary when it needs to be, but that does little to diminish its precise, calculated strokes and brushes that see human detail and sensory experience in a light forever anew.