Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Space Oddities: Black Narcissus

It is difficult to believe that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's dramatic film 'Black Narcissus' (1947) was solely filmed in England. The use of matte paintings and set design transports the viewer to the Himalayas, where a group of nuns set out to convert the local people to their beliefs. However, this does not go according to plan and the nuns quickly spiral out of control when confronted with temptation.

Fig. 1 Black Narcissus (1947)
The Palace of Mopu, where the nuns were sent, contain dozens of obvious and hidden symbols related to sex, as it was essentially a brothel. This sexual frustration and temptation proves to be the main struggle for the nuns even if they didn't recognize it themselves. The design of the sets allow the viewer to pick out objects, images, colour and light that hint at what is causing the characters turmoil and frustration. The location of the palace increased the hysteria amongst the nuns, perched on an isolated peak the "high altitude and the constant, unnerving singing of the wind, produces deleterious physical and mental effects" (Pryor, 1947) on the characters. Each of the nuns faced their own inner demons during their stay at the palace, although some remained stronger than others. Even the General (Sabu Dastagir), who  convince the nuns to let him attend the school, is seduced by Kanchi (Jean Simmons) symbolizing the submission to temptation.

They are further enticed by Dean (David Farrar), a rough Englishman who visits the palace to assist the nuns. He unknowingly seduces Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who was already struggling with her life as a nun before the trip to the temple. Dean also eventually wins the affection of Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) because he reminded her of her lover from before she took her vows. Although Sister Clodagh is able to control her desire and ultimately considers Dean as a friend, Sister Ruth gives in to temptation. After Dean denies Ruth, she is driven mad with lust and jealousy. She promptly returns to the Palace and attempts to shove Clodagh off the side of the cliff, only to fall to her own death after the struggle. This scene pushes the film into a sudden horror story, with Ruth's "final appearance in the film, gaunt and wraithlike... is one of the scariest moments in British cinema history" (Bradshaw, 2005).

Fig. 2
Although the environment is filled with symbols, the colour and lighting used in Black Narcissus is what really expresses the unspoken struggles. The film starts off with very little colour. It uses a lot of white and greys, perhaps to symbolize purity and faith in God. However as the film advances, more vibrant colours are introduced which "progresses the film from cold and indifferent to brooding and almost supernatural," (Mirasol, 2010). Colour is used in this film to further suggest sexuality, temptation, and hostility in the characters and the environment surrounding them. It implies detachment from the beliefs and rules that the nuns vowed to adhered to. As the characters question themselves streaks of colourful light, most notably reds and oranges, leak into the scene. Instead of planting dull looking vegetables, one of the Sisters impulsively planted colourful flowers instead. This in itself could symbolize sexuality as a flower is technically the sexual organ of a plant. It may also symbolize the temptation for extravagance and luxury, something else that nuns are vowed to exclude from their lives.

Fig. 3
Ultimately, only Sister Ruth becomes unhinged and attempts to seduce Dean and kill Clodagh. Her character is often seen covered with red light making it clear she is the antagonist. Later she is seen wearing red clothing and applying red lipstick, showing she gave in to her temptations and relinquished her vows. After Ruth's death, the remaining nuns remain faithful to their beliefs. Visibly feeling defeated, they depart the temple and retreat back to Calcutta. Sister Clodagh and Dean say their goodbyes as the surviving group of nuns disappear into the dull, grey rain.

Bradshaw, P. (2005) Black Narcissus At: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2005/aug/05/3 Accessed on: 10/11/2015
Mirasol, M. (2010) "Black Narcissus," Which Electrified Scorsese At: http://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/black-narcissus-which-electrified-scorsese Accessed on: 10/11/2015
Pryor, T. (1947) Movie Review Black Narcissus At: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF173CE261BC4C52DFBE66838C659EDE Accessed on: 10/11/2015

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Black Narcissus (1947) [Poster] At: http://www.lonelyplanet.fr/sites/default/files/20140523143517_29490.jpg Accessed on: 10/11/2015
Figure 2. [Screenshot] At: https://bplusmovieblog.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/black-narcisuss-12.png Accessed on: 10/11/2015
Figure 3. [Screenshot] At: http://celluloidoptimist.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Narcissus.jpg Accessed on: 10/11/2015