Saturday, December 18, 2010

Black Narcissus

Here's a Michael Powell quote on his film Black Narcissus, which he made in collaboration with Emerich Pressburger:

"It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame fro beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts."

     Indeed, there is a surprising amount of eroticism here for a 1947 movie about nuns. Even more surprising is how the eroticism breaks through in Deborah Kerr's performance as Sister Clodogh. She's the newly appointed head nun, and her position of authority has rendered her stern, humorless, and intent on keeping bad impulses in check. But Clodogh, who has just been given the unenviable task of establishing a school and medical dispensary high up in the Himalayas, is firm and cold out of necessity. The palace (which formerly housed the local prince's harem) that the nuns have converted into their convent is their own version of the Overlook Hotel, but instead of being surrounded by ghosts, they're haunted by their exotic surroundings. Something about the altitude, the solitude and the natural beauty (never have painted studio sets and technicolor looked this good) keeps making them lose sight of the inhibitions that have controlled them for so long.
     Eventually, sister Clodogh starts to have a hard time maintaining her impenetrable facade and we begin to see her as vulnerable; she has her own doubts, fears, and desires. And none of this is made any easier by the presence of the mischievous and carefree Mr. Dean, an Englishman who parades around shirtless and in short shorts, and who the nuns need around because he can fix their plumbing and knows the locals. But if there is love between the two, Clodogh is too smart to make it explicit. Here, the passion remains well below the surface.
    However, there is that eruption that Powell mentions. This comes from Sister Ruth's character, who's played by Kathleen Byron with snarling intensity--and I don't mean that in a good way. When Sister Ruth confronts Sister Clodoh, Black Narcissus gets caught up in its own hysteria and becomes a different movie, a cross between Hitchcock and German Expressionism, with Ruth looking about as seductive as Nosferatu. A shame, because the eroticism was much more effective when it was sublimated.


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