Top Tier, 1947

[Note of introduction: this is a reprint from an unexamined/essentials post from last year, after a third or fourth viewing of Black Narcissus – the first on Blu-ray]

Black Narcissus has inspired much well-deserved cooing over its potent and complex images, and much well-earned discussion over what we may take as its thesis. (The consensus, of which I’m a part, seems to be that the nuns represent our inability to escape our natures, and that physical spaces can have non-physical essences.) I don’t feel encouraged to throw any more coins into those two fountains, at least not with traditional means. What I’d prefer to do, what I like to do every now and then, is post the notes I took – hurriedly – during the course of the film. They have been edited and sometimes completely re-written for presentation, by which I mean I have tried to turn each blast of the pen into a proper, grammatically correct sentence that contains a full thought.

Why notes? Because there are reams of critical/appreciative essays on Black Narcissus. My intention is not to go through the film, but to nibble at the edges; to stick pushpins into specific moments that caught my eye, my ear, and my thoughts.

The following roughly corresponds to the film’s timeline.

No time is wasted: the very first shot is Powell-Pressburger-esque: oblique angle, wordless, still, and seemingly pressed into clay.

Liberal use of painted backdrops; everything in this film seems to have been illustrated using colored chalk. We learn from the commentary (Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell in 1988, recording for the Criterion laserdisc) that there is not a single shot from the India timeline that was taken on location, that it was shot entirely on soundstages, using miniatures and mattes whenever necessary, i.e. nearly at all times.

From IMDb trivia: The backdrops were blown-up black and white photographs. The art department [used] pastel chalks on top of them.

From IMDb trivia: Jack Cardiff said that the lighting and color palette of this film was inspired by Vermeer.

Sister Clodagh (Kerr) is introduced faceless, from behind.

Mother Superior squints to detect the slightest betrayal of emotion in Clodagh’s face. A subtle indication that we are dealing with a culture of institutionalized self-repression.

As Sister Clodagh reads the letter from the man who isn’t supposed to be very helpful, the house is introduced via her imagination of the man’s voice and a possibly imagined visual tour of the house, which turns out to be real: the whole place, all of its rooms, therefore, is internalized with a subtle transition edit, so that even when it is inhabited, it has the patina of projected imagination, an actuality that has been “dreamed” into existence. (By the same token, Dean can equally be said to have been made real through her mind’s eye – or, rather, ear – a subtle hint to the viewer that he has gotten under her skin before the two have even been introduced.)

The close-ups of the village life are the stuff of Eisenstein.

“…bare goddess…”

You would think this was a helicopter shot if you didn’t know about the miniatures.

“…Dirty old bird,” followed by a pan across a predatory bird feeding on what I think is carrion, mid-frame in wide shot, moving left to right. (Similar birds-birds pun in the Hitchcock film.)

Ayah in the aviary, her only moment of gentle grace in the film, to be forgotten as soon as she opens her mouth.

There’s almost too much information even by 0:06:37!

Ayah’s run through the house seems to dissolve both narrative and spectacle, to introduce the “fracturing.” We can’t keep track of how this place is set up internally.

Exposition time: this place used to be a whorehouse!! This information to be corroborated through dialogue by the lewd poster.

Supremely campy acting by Esmond Knight and May Hallatt, contrasted against the nuns from earlier.

Sister selectees – each has an action to indicate Character, like in a silent’s opening titles. Here’s a guide, and what they are intended to do at House of Saint Faith – in other words, what core parts of their nature will fail them:

Sister Clodagh is, of course, Deborah Kerr (“Rhymes with star!”); the chief protagonist, as well as the embodiment of the sisters’ struggle in its non-crazy form. She is supposed to lead.

Sister Briony is the big sister with the strong shoulders. She is supposed to supply strength.

Sister Philippa is the gardener. She is supposed to plant vegetables and potatoes.

Sister Blanche is the group’s “zing!” Her superpower is that she’s popular and fun. She is supposed to be the group’s positive essence.

Sister Ruth is introduced by an absence, an empty seat at the dining table. She is supposed to get well.

A memorable transition: Clodagh’s head (particularly her eyes) dissolves to black, and the black dissolves to heavy closed oak doors. Not just the objects before and after the transition, but the camera distance, focal length, perhaps even the lenses they used, provide a dizzying effect.

The famous cliff with the bells. It’s a very definitive place in relation to everything, but the interior of the House seems different every time – a chaotic mess. This is by virtue of the production being shot for the most part at Pinewood Studios. Soundstages sometimes make it difficult for filmmakers to provide coherent geography; here, it seems P&P are agitating that particular effect.

A dirty thumbnail against bright pics of tomatoes.

Sister Briony “does magic”/chemistry, for the “natives.”

Clodagh-Ruth conflict established at around the 19 minutes mark (Conflict I, Nun V. Nun)

Dean’s turn of nose, accentuated by the shadow it casts, indicates petulance.

Clodagh swells with pride. Doesn’t exactly keep it in check. Probably not a good sign.

21:50 – Dean throws down the gauntlet (“I give ye til the rains break”). (Conflict II, Nun V. Nature.)

Sickness is in the water, even the people who live there get sick, even the General’s heir gets sick. First sign that perhaps THE FILM IS SICK.

Reaction shot on the holy man (moment of the son’s death). Kuleshov effect paying big dividends with this guy.

Then to joyful, “moving forward” shots, as if things continue – more Eisenstein work shots – feeling of progress falters almost immediately.

Dean is unbelievably childish (he writes in chalk on the wall, Court in Session, and laughs at his own jokes), and this is underscored by the way he dresses and the way he stands. Everything about the way he behaves runs counter to our expectations of his noble, suave, movie star profile.

They (the Indians) keep coming up in conversation, but we’ve hardly seen “them” yet since the Sisters arrived, except in brief glimpses. Even for some time after Ayah mentions that “they” are arriving in droves, paid by the Raja, and there’s the discussion that follows, they seem deliberately to be kept offscreen by P&P.

And they are referred to as “children” frequently, too many times to count.

Blood spatters across Ruth’s tunic = shocking.

Bloody Ruth, in what resembles throes of erotic-hysteric passion, even more shocking.

Dean immediately senses she’s damaged goods, wants to nail her anyway. (She later tells him she guessed as much but he denies it, rather over-emphatically. But she was right, I think.)

The Sisters move like chess pieces; Farrar moves like John Wayne.

Jean Simmons enters spitting seeds, regal as you please.

Is Dean the villain of this adventure? You wouldn’t think so, with his square jaw, high cheekbones, and perfect hair. But he’s acting like a real shit.

Makes lascivious work of that pipe, making eyes at Clodagh.

Briony knows he’s trouble. If this was an American comedy film from the 1990s, there’d be the inevitable scene where she punches him in the (camera POV) face or kicks him in the nuts. Because he’d be played by Cary Elwes.

34:32 – The first large group of “them” since the reading of Dean’s letter.

Dissolves to black are chapter headings.

Tell me Hithcock didn’t see this. Here, vertigo = forbidden & erotic pleasure.

Which is immediately set upon by Christian imagery and sublimated to the Philippa conflict.

This place causes them to question their faith, or, at least, and to the same effect, to stop attending to it.

Spaces can’t lose their spirit – work isn’t enough, nothing is enough (blisters).

“I think you can see too far.”

Onset of the first sequence of the flashback. (Almost sixty years later, the “one small chapter at a time in carefully-spaced-apart chronology” would become Lost‘s flashback method of choice, and the show’s writers would run it into the ground.)

Denial of desire from out, or from within? Or both?

A brief, wordless respite between flashbacks. Again, “seeing too far.”

General’s heir appears, completely unbeguiling and transparent – the only supporting character without a past or a set of rotten memories? Without an agenda?

Kanchi dances – she has none of the sister’s difficulty with being too inhibited.

45:45 – For some reason, this strikes me as a Liz Lemon moment.

The holy man was a general?

47:15 – “What would Christ have done?” What is the meaning of this line? It is either snide contempt or an earnest provocation disguised as contempt.

Semi-hidden Kanchi posed above Ruth. Unusually managed composition, here.

So the title is revealed. Black Narcissus = Sex Panther!

“Don’t you think it’s common to smell of ourselves?”

49:45 – This time, the drop into flashback is a little surprising. Lost has that whoooooosh sound effect. P&P have too much class to telegraph everything to the audience.

She runs into the black of the evening. This shot is reprised by John Hillcoat in his 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – but the woman in that scene is of a very different state of mind.

51:50 – Even the kids know which way the wind blows.

52:00 – Another wall of Christian (Christmas) imagery, disrupted by Dean’s mock(?)-zealous baritone. We don’t suspect he’s drunk at the moment, just being a complete tool.

Fourth and final segment of flashback. The parallel editing between past and present traces the course of Clodagh’s two transformations as much as they can be said to resemble one another.

Dean shows his true colors here – does he in fact have a spark of decency? I am reminded of Kyle asking Lucy if she’s decent in Written on the Wind.

57:53 – Ruth’s first full-scale outburst – the “I stopped the bleeding” bit earlier doesn’t count, as it was chalked up to post-stress exuberance.

59:49 – Clodagh speaks truly regarding Dean at last – followed by a violently triumphant outburst to indicate spring – orchestral, visual.

Music seems to have an edge of “new beginnings!” and cuteness but it’s deceptive, goes into “trouble afoot” without a perceptible shift.

Ayah punishing Kanchi is both comical and horrifying – her friends laugh at her.

“Finish the beating and begin to be a man!”

Work is the apparent solution to everything.

Philippa is perfectly content with the “mistake” she made until Clodagh begins asking questions. Kind of a benign antecedent to the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” revelation in The Shining.

Sister Philippa’s struggle is the most moving because she’s the most pious of the lot, the only other Sister who’s been given a past, and that past = twenty years with the order. This place does some serious damage to people who are not sensual by default.

“Like Mr. Dean or like the holy man…” Interesting dichotomy.

The baby’s mother’s begging hits Sister Briony the hardest, a wrenching reaction shot

After we learn of the baby’s death, Ayah’s declaration turns the place into Precinct 13.

…And there’s Dean, high on the hog, bet he can’t wait to gloat.

Expressionist visuals give way to plot montage, but soon return.

Dean talking of castor oil sounds boastful.

Sister Ruth has the unhappiest grin I’ve ever seen.

Horns (now bathed in autumn browns) remind of first frames.

1:18:00 – Dean’s humanity peaks through. It only took a year or so.

Clodagh finally erupts and lays all her shit on the line, and Dean can only bear witness.

1:18:55 – “Run away?!” has this been Omerta the whole film?

The drums – why now?

Ruth’s transformation is as shocking as the opening of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss.

She is beyond help.

Choose your weapons, ladies. Ruth the compact, Clodagh the Good Book. (Treasure of the Sierra Madre standoff. Ruth:Dobbs::Clodagh:Curtin.)

Applying lipstic over dry-burned lips. Eyes bloodshot, half-open eyelids purple. She is Maria (Lang’s Metropolis) resurrected.

Dissolving candle cut against wall painting = ephemeral flame versus eternal, impassive silence.

Laughter layered across mad choral voices.

1:24:45 – The remaining Sisters are visually inscrutable. Ayah’s light returns their definition but they don’t listen to her. Amazingly, Ayah mocks them, but they kind of deserve it, scrambling like toddlers about the House, looking for Ruth.

The holy man unimpressed, impassive.

Ruth surveying Dean’s home, a caricature of (longing for?) Clodagh’s secular domesticity.

He treats her as if she’s Kanchi’s age – and she acts it.

“I don’t love anyone!”

“Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh! Clodagh!”

1:31:00 – Perhaps the falsest matte yet.

Obscured or interrupted vision has recurred countless times, in countless ways, since the film’s midpoint.

Ruth @ 1:34:30 – The most terrifying door opening in film history.

She looks reptilian as she makes her approach.


Now that Ruth has been “exorcised,” Philippa walks freely among the villagers.

Fog obscures St. Faith as if forbidding Clodagh to look at it.

Mr. Dean looks absurd on that donkey, as he did at 0:08:55.