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Black Narcissus (1947)
In short, Black Narcissus is a film about a handful of Anglican nuns who open a mission school and clinic in a remote Himalayan village, so yes, it is exactly what you'd expect: a technologically masterful erotic thriller.
Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, a moderately arrogant thirty-something nun, who is sent by her mother superior to lead a new mission in an empty palace set high in the mountains of Darjeeling. The palace was once home to a bygone General's extra women; indeed, the walls are decorated with images of beautiful bathing girls in various poses and stages of dress. The heir to this palace, the current General, tried to establish a school and dispensary the year before by installing a band of monks, but they only lasted five months. It is a windy place, full of ghosts after all, and no one thought to paint over the pictures.
Sister Clodagh is given four women of the order to take with her: Sister Briony (Judith Furse), a sturdy, no-nonsense nun; Sister "Honey" (Jenny Laird), a happy, glass-ever-half-full kind of gal; Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), the landscaping nun; and finally Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), a sharp-edged, unhappy woman who is prone to illness and complaining, because a trip to the Himalayas 'round about monsoon season might be just the thing to perk her up.
The troupe is met on location (more on this later) by the General's British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a handsome, dissolute rogue with wavy hair and a manly swagger, who dresses in short-sleeved cotton shirts (all unbuttoned), a battered alpine hat, and high-waisted, Magnum, P.I. man-shorts. He is both helpful and discomfiting to Sisters Clodagh and Ruth (if for different reasons) and he makes no secret about Mopu not being a good fit for them. He tells the nuns the locals are like children who don't know from modern medicine, so the nuns better not try to help any of them if they get really sick, because if one of 'em dies, they'll all think the magic is bad.
Dean rides a Shetland pony, so he should know.
As the girls settle in, the raw, earthy beauty of their surroundings seeps in, upending each of them in different, but profound ways. In spite of the "clear air" and ceaseless wind, they get the clinic and school up and running. Sister Clodagh develops a collegial tolerance of Mr. Dean, Sister Briony remains sturdy, and Sister Honey remains cheerful. Poor Sister Phillipa, who spends much of her time outdoors, seems so easily distracted and Sister Ruth, when she isn't carping about the stupidity and smell of the children, seems to brighten a bit whenever she sees Mr. Dean. Dean helps with the plumbing and whatnot, and even hands them a disturbingly beautiful girl of seventeen (the gorgeous, walnut-tinted Jean Simmons) who has been hanging around Dean's doorstep to keep her out of trouble, if you know what I mean.
Enter the Young General (Sabu), the nephew of the Old General, who has been called from his studies in London to take his place in Mopu. Sister Clodagh reluctantly agrees that he can study with the girls for the time being. She's not such a bad egg, really, as we learn from flashbacks to her time as a flaming red-headed lass in Ireland before she took the veil and had a handsome boyfriend. She's not the only nun to be remembering things from the Before Time: poor Sister Phillipa couldn't resist planting flowers where the practical vegetables ought to be and is very distressed about it, and Sister Ruth, getting paler and more angular by the day is clearly pining for Mr. Dean and his Shetland pony ways.
Then one day, a villager brings in her feverish, dying baby. Sister Briony sends the woman home, knowing the baby will die, but Sister Honey secretly gives the mother medicine, which doesn't work. The next day, after the baby dies, no one comes to clinic or school and the nuns suddenly find it dangerous to venture outside their garden. The Young General has run off that same night with Jean Simmons, and Sister Ruth is about to open that mysterious package she received from Calcutta. Left with her troubling thoughts and "that something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated," Sister Clodagh finds herself in for a rough evening.
An evening I won't spoil with too much detail, but suffice it to say that Sister Ruth has been harboring a deep hatred of Sister Clodagh, whom she sees as a rival for Mr. Dean's affections. After a disappointing encounter with Mr. Dean, Sister Ruth emerges feverish and mad, wanting nothing more than to terrorize Sister Clodagh for the remaining minutes of the picture, which she does, magnificently.
I can count the number of times on one hand when one person actually touches another in this picture, but so much is suggested through color, sound, atmosphere, and those rich, intimate close-ups, that you'd swear you'd seen Everything, All of It. Perhaps the greatest illusion of all is the fact that the entire film was shot in the studio, using models and hand-painted, black-and-white photographic mattes. The only thing authentically Indian about Black Narcissus is Sabu and the plants used in some of the exteriors.
During the filming of this picture. Kathleen Byron and director Michael Powell frequently argued about how to play Ruth. Powell envisioned Ruth as a crazed, hysterical monster, whereas Byron wanted to play Ruth...oh what's the word...human, as though her actions might be motivated by sincere inexperience and regretted decisions. You can judge who won that argument in the scene where Ruth goes to Dean's quarters. Their disagreement was complicated by the fact that Byron and Powell were having an affair at the time, and that Ruth's principal rival was being played by the director's recent ex-lover, Deborah Kerr. So maybe the villain of this film isn't so much Sister Ruth, whose frustrated passion drove her to madness, but how frightening women's sexuality can be...at least to men.
It certainly was villainous by the standards of the Catholic League of Decency, who thought the picture obscene on account of the nuns succumbing to various forms of sensuality. The film was not allowed to be released in the United States until those nuns were turned into Anglicans. As scary (and trope-y) the voracious, crazed, needy female monster in movies is, give me Black Narcissus over Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction any day.
However you feel about nuns, the Raj, or what a player Michael Powell turned out to be, Black Narcissus is a hot work of art from beginning to end -- and Kathleen Byron is terrifying.
This post is my contribution to The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings.
Please take a moment to read about the other dastards, creeps, and nogoodniks you love to hate.
But Sister Ruth Is Ill...
4/16/2015 10:55:49 am
Fabulous review of this movie. I've seen it only once, but the images are haunting – and your review has brought it all back to me. A work of art, indeed, and so passionate even though the characters rarely touch each other.
4/16/2015 11:22:00 pm
I love the Great Villain Blogathon. Thank you for letting me play!
Hands down one of the most memorable female villains in the movies. That famous image of her is so striking and powerful I bet people who haven't seen the film think it's a horror film. Loved your analysis and background info. Thanks so much for being a part of this event!
Is it wrong for me to love the outta control Sister Ruth? "BLACK NARCISSUS" - Talk about a female version of a gunfight. There was a glorious face-off between Kerr and Byron as they sit across each other; one in her white nun's habit, the other defrockWS and glamming herself up. A table between them, with a bible on one side, and a stick of lipstick on the other. The heat in the movie is palpable with the object of their affection being the ferally handsome David Farrar. Tamping down female sexuality can lead to "monstrous" results. Love the film, and enjoyed your post.
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