Fig. 1. Black Narcissus poster
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) is a film that was well ahead of its time, it has some amazing matte paintings and a plot that will slowly build up until it gets out of hand.
Powell and Pressburger did a fantastic job at creating a link between the viewer and the nuns, slowly you watch as they are taken over by thoughts of lust and love that is expressed by flashbacks and clever lighting. As Uhlich points out in his review ‘That great duo of stylized cinema, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, shot their classic dark-comic melodrama mostly on British studio sets, and the film’s very falseness—those matte-painting vanishing perspectives and cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s harshly exaggerated lighting cues—creates a psychologically charged space in which an ungodly tragedy can unfold.’ (Uhlich, 2013). Uhlich suggests that due to how the film was shot mostly on set, it creates a falseness that makes you as a viewer feel uneasy and connect with the struggles that the nuns are facing. It is possible that Powell and Pressburger wanted to create a space that is very alien to the viewer, to strengthen the feeling that was consuming the nuns in the narrative. This is achieved through the use of matte paintings and the use of red lighting, which becomes more and more obvious as the film progresses.
Fig. 2. Horror still
Black Narcissus takes a dark turn when Sister Ruth’s lust takes over. Throughout the film it is easy to see Sister Ruth’s transformation slowly happening, however the final few scenes may still take you by surprise as the film quickly becomes a horror story. As Kendrick points out in his review ‘She is established as “trouble” from the beginning, and the numerous close-ups of her intense eyes and sly smile suggest that the chastity of a nun’s life is not for her.’ (Kendrick, 2001). This suggests through the use of close ups Powell and Pressburger attempted to express the hidden desires of Sister Ruth. It becomes more apparent as the story progresses that Sister Ruth becomes twisted by the lust she has, to the point where she attempts to murder Sister Clodagh. These scenes have aged very well, the framing of each of the shots where Sister Ruth is stalking Sister Clodagh are visually stunning. Figure 2 shows the scene in which Sister Ruth emerges from the doorway and attempts to throw Sister Clodagh off the cliff. This looks incredible visually due to the fact she has been made to look almost zombie like in this scene which is a huge contrast to what you have seen throughout the film. It is also hugely successful due to its build up, throughout this scene in which Sister Ruth stalks Sister Clodagh, the camera changes a lot from close ups, to first person. This makes it still very easy to read as a situation that is invoked with horror.
Fig. 3. Red lighting still
The use of the colour red is a vital element to the story telling, it is a clear indication to the sexual temptation and lust. Powell and Pressburger use the colour red in a variety of ways from the use of subtle lighting to the more obvious scenes in which Sister Ruth is wearing red lipstick and a red dress. As Brussat states ‘There is the sexual arousal of Sister Ruth who casts aside her habit and puts on a red dress and thick red lipstick in her bid for Mr. Dean's affections.’ (Brussat, 2010). Brussat suggests that the red lipstick and dress is a visual embodiment of the sexual desire that Sister Ruth feels. It is possible that Powell and Pressburger used these strong vibrant visuals to suggest sexual tension subtly, with the addition to red lighting the viewer receives a powerful sense of passion.
Overall Black Narcissus is definitely a film that can still be enjoyed today; it has some incredible visuals that will intrigue you from the start and a plot twist that you’d never expect in a film about lustful nuns.
Powell, M & Pressburger, E. (1947). Figure 1. Black Narcissus poster. http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Posters/B/Poster%20-%20Black%20Narcissus_10.jpg (Accessed on 16/11/2014)
Powell, M & Pressburger, E. (1947). Figure 2. Horror still. http://filmfanatic.org/reviews/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Black-Narcissus-Horror.png (Accessed on 16/11/2014)
Powell, M & Pressburger, E. (1947). Figure 3. Red lighting still. http://www.seraphicpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/sister-ruth.jpg (Accessed on 16/11/2014)
Brussat, F & M. (2010). spiritualityandpractice.com. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=20119 (Accessed on 16/11/2014)
Kendrick, J. (2001). qnetwork.com. http://www.qnetwork.com/index.php?page=review&id=2412 (Accessed on 16/11/2014)
Uhlich, K. (2013). timeout.com. http://www.timeout.com/us/film/black-narcissus-3 (Accessed on 16/11/2014)