Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Black Narcissus (1947)


Anachronisms come with the territory and Black Narcissus is no exception. The movie's riddled with them, but I guess I don't get bothered by these things, in part because I'm almost always conscious of the time and place a movie was made in. Unless it's glaringly part of an agenda (The Birth of a Nation), these quibbles are easy, for me at least, to shrug off—especially in a movie like Black Narcissus. Film really isn't the arena for the plausibles or the politically correct; it is a medium that acts on our emotions and, most importantly, creates an atmosphere for those emotions to play out. This is Black Narcissus at its very finest.

Technical achievements aside (and the movie is a kind of blueprint for building a film), Black Narcissus's visuals along with its art direction give the picture a very strong thematic cohesiveness. Look at any of the medium-long shots of the nuns and they take on a painterly quality; some shots feel more like they were handmade than physically photographed. It's a combination of the lighting, color, costume and the actors themselves that create this still-life effect, but the mechanics are beside the point (like the method of a magician's trick is beside the point). The medium-long shot's appearance as a kind of oil painting cement the Sisters as rigid, disciplined and, importantly, a communal group of people. The statuesque uniform dulls their sense of individuality and it is this interplay that is central to the movie.

Indeed, a lot of the Archers' movies seem to favor these kinds of stories—pitting the individual against some dehumanizing force. Black Narcissus achieves this by juxtaposing its medium-long shots—reverent, communal, and free of sin—with its stunning close-ups. It's arguably the close-up that serves as the movie's engine; it drives the picture forward, both serving (audaciously) as an interrogation of the Sisters' chastity and seeking out their buried individuality.


This breach on their fortitude and piety is achieved in a myriad of ways and you could go nuts trying to keep track of them all, but perhaps my favorite—and the one that convinced me I was seeing something special—is Sister Clodagh's first flashback, along with the lead-up to that scene. Scorsese in the commentary preaches over and over about the movie's economy and he's right. We see Sister Ruth ring the bell, clearly lost in thought over the hunkiness of Mr. Dean and the movie beautifully segues into Clodagh and Philippa's conversation. Clodagh wants to be a pillar of strength and assures Philippa she'll help reconnect her to God. We almost immediately see Clodagh's fortitude crumble to her achingly Romantic, long buried memory.


This whole sequence, as Scorsese suggests, is very poetic and just about as good as anything Hitchcock has done. These images do a lot and work on many levels to develop our characters and build the movie's thematic cohesiveness. I want to emphasize the irony here because it's easy to mistake for Clodagh's hypocrisy alone: When Clodagh speaks with Philippa she speaks with a fraternal, all-knowing concern, as if she telepathically knew what was troubling her Sister. Her belief is in an almost psychic connection between herself and others, and this, perhaps is the cause of her fear and guilt over her flashbacks. The crux is: her thoughts are hers alone; she is never exposed for retreating into her memory. She is an individual with private thoughts and feelings and no sentient connection with her Sisters. In this sense, I feel the battle between mind and body a bit misguided as a final analysis—or rather superficial. I think this conflict ultimately resides with the mind struggling with itself; it is a fight between what we see and what we think we ought to see.

There are so many other little thematic underpinnings that I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention them, since the film's color progression alone is enough to warrant analysis. The beginning of the movie is pretty, but muted, but by the end, there is a beautiful contrast of blue-green with orange-red hues. These colors, other than being stunning, underscore the climactic struggle between cool chastity and the warmth of carnality. Similar contrast can be seen in the Mobu palace itself. The bleached, alabaster exterior, flush against a cliff give the impression of a fortress—like the nuns themselves, projecting an image of cleanliness and order. The interiors are a kind of metaphor for the nun's own inner thoughts and feelings. They are, like anyone else, still human. We can also look to Mr. Dean who, in his nearly ubiquitous short-shorts, seems at times more a hairy man-ape; his presence alone is an instant affront to the nun's idealized lifestyle.

Picture 7

And on and on. This movie's really a cinematic gold mine simply in terms of understanding how to use the grammatical tools of the medium, so it's no surprise Scorsese is such a fan. Yet that doesn't stop it from feeling incredibly fresh and even its anachronisms have an almost tongue-in-cheek quality about them. With Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale, and The Red Shoes, it's no wonder the Archers have such a following and I might be one of them. There are moments in their movies (flashback in Narcissus, ballet in Red Shoes, and the entirety of A Canterbury Tale) that just smacked me with their brilliance, as if to remind me of what the medium could do.

Note: I have the Criterion Blu-Ray, which is exquisite for a digital transfer, but the screens are from random places on the internet since I lack the equipment to properly screen capture what I wanted from a BD (which is my normal practice). That's why these screenshots vary size, quality, and aspect ratio. Apologies.

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