Clubland: Black Narcissus

So, many of us wanted to see a film at something closer to the same time, to get a collective discussion together. I chose Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Narcissus to start us off, and therefore I pitch at you a few, by-no-means-inclusive reactions and readings, intended merely as jumpstart:

1. Simple gut reaction: While hewing more closely to some more conventional forms of narrative, this film reminded me of Blue Velvet. Not in terms of plot or imagery, or even thematics (although there might be some ripe relations), but in its use of the technical possibilities of film to convey or capture the deep complexities of emotion, desire, sensation.
For example, the scene where Dean (David Farrar) brings Kanchi (Jean Simmons–!) to the nunnery, as Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) looks her over and skeptically challenges Dean, he drily asks if the Sister has some questions about what he actually “knows” of the girl. And the camera holds for a longer-than-expected moment on Dean’s face, then cuts (again for too-long a reaction) to Clodagh. The first couple times this happened I dismissed the shots as archaic, old-fashioned tactics for capturing inner emotion. But the more frequently they occured, the more they recalled the same trick in B.V., where the expected cinematic convention (shot-reverse-shot) and its familiar evocation of certain interpretations were made uncanny. I knew what information (about character) I was supposed to gather from the coy connotation and the glance, but by holding just a bit “too long” on the actors’ faces, I suddenly was unsure how to read them, was struck by a flood of mixed, confusing messages. Or–to be precise–in this one scene I started reading more than the meet-cute flirtatious antagonism so familiar from other films, and instead saw darker strains of lust, anger…. I was surprised at how damned effectively the film evoked such a ripe, complicated psychology.
Others have talked about the film’s emotional complexities. Scorsese talks about how the film’s lush composition and color scheme are themselves producing and informing us about emotion. (MS makes an on-going intriguing argument about how Powell and cinematographer Cardiff reveal the cinematic possibilities of Technicolor.) Powell himself noted that he set out to make a certain kind of story and ended up shooting an opera.

2. One of the central tensions of the plot emerges in the nuns’ attempt to retreat from the satisfaction (or acceptance) of desires into an ascetic world of good deeds. Which resonated for me on a number of levels:
–The contrast between spirituality and materiality. They try to get away from the temptations of “civilization” and into the reality of this “primitive” site (more on that in a moment); yet the more “real” and tied to the earth, the more the nuns fall prey to desire, to sensation. I’m not sure how I read this: are materiality and desire tied to a more authentic spiritual existence? (I’m assuming no–we have the holy man, resisting all sensation and perception, on the hill looking over them. His presence — or the stark portrait of Christ on the cross — seems to indicate the necessary relationship between privation and relinquishing the earthly as means toward spiritual ends. Then again there’s a contrast between visions and versions of transcendence throughout — privation or satiation?)
–And I’m puzzling myself into a more central discussion point, I think: what is the relationship between the self, the spiritual, and the material world? Is escaping self possible? It would seem attention to the self is a vain cosmetic trapping, the perfume “Black Narcissus” purchased by the Young General (Sabu) in England–one wants to escape from this prison. And yet…. It seems like that desire to escape itself sets up contradictions, creates suffering.
I’m just noodling–the film seems to have a profound religious sensibility, but it is not tied to the conventions of ascetism. Or maybe I’m wrong–maybe it’s a film that accepts the dichotomy of spirit and material self, and opts for the latter. …..
–…which gets me to one last incoherent mumble about spirituality. Is film a medium which could ever connect us to spiritual experience? Or is it so resolutely tied to sensation, to psychology and selfhood that the spiritual becomes impossible?
Or–conversely–is film capable at all of capturing material existence or ‘reality’? Even as I’m noting that film maybe can’t get at the spiritual, here is a deliberately (?) artificial world, which glories in the production of real feeling and sensation from elaborately unreal stimuli.

3. The whole thing was shot on studio (or in surrounding sites in England)–and I was constantly circling around this sense and use of place in a couple of ways.
–Why the artifice? What are the purposes of its artifice?
–A more sociological take: how does the film’s “unreality” tie into its colonial and quasi-colonial imagery and plot? I.e., ye olde plot whereby a Westerner (here Deborah Kerr, but I kept recalling Judy Davis in Lean’s Passage) encounters the spiritual via a sexualized “other”-ness… how the place becomes merely a convenient trope for examining the Western self. (That said, the perfume “Narcissus” is an English commodity…. which doesn’t make Sabu’s General or the brownface of Kanchi into complex characters, but does set up that Conradian/Forsterish form of internal critique of colonialism. Maybe.)

4. The primary reason I picked this film was because of my tendency to creep toward violence and revenge and perhaps “masculine” aesthetic foci. So I’m also interested in the film’s constructions of femininity, its narrative as a kind of “women’s picture,” its evocation of female desire and sexuality. I’m running out of steam, but: Sister Clodagh’s conflict with her past as an alternative or alternate approach to the “history” of self depicted in a ‘boy’-flick, a la Viggo Mortensen’s character in the much-discussed History of Violence? (In fact, this film reminds me of Cronenberg, too….) Or sexuality–Ruth doesn’t seem to want Dean but Sister Clodagh…. that scene where they sit as the candle burns out and Ruth in tight close-up applies the rich red lipstick….

Enough, right? Lots of reactions. I really enjoyed the film.

25 thoughts on “Clubland: Black Narcissus

  1. we watched this just last night, so perfect timing, mike! simon has alredy accused me of being a philistine, so y’all don’t need to pile on when i say that i couldn’t help feeling that this film was dated, or that it didn’t age well, or something along those lines. in any case, i’ll respond to mike’s comments, since he says very interesting things.

    i haven’t seen blue velvet, but i think you are spot on, mike, when you say that the emotions in this film run deep, often mysteriously, and that there is always a really dark side to them. i think for instance of the gardening nun, her callused, gnarled hands, a stigmata-like sign of her heroic effort to squash emotions arising from “the past.” what are these emotions? what are the memories that torture the poor woman to the point of self-castigation (this theme is reprised later on, when she asks to be sent away and demoted). it would be easy to say that this deep emotional undercurrent is lust, eroticism, but this is certainly not all. there is also, as mike points out, anger, anxiety of control, power, self-discipline, hatred for the body, hatred for the self, hatred for the other… it’s a dark tangle of feelings that the film evokes.

    the film alludes to this explicitly, of course, in its constant reminders of the wind and the water and the strange atmosphere of the mountains. these are meant indeed to drive one crazy, presumably by arousing memories and desires one will not be able to control. the cultural, colonialist, racist elements are there and one could read the film as a commentary on straying from the west, from civilization, and entering a world in which one (a woman?) doesn’t belong, a world of magic primitivism, etc. but for some reason i feel that powell and pressburger are not very interested in the cross-cultural aspect, that it could be anything else. the landscape the film seems to be most interested in is the interior one. i suggest that what they are most interested in is how close we are to being haunted, even unravelled, by dark emotions and dark memories.

    in this light, the most interesting aspect of the film may just be why the women are driven to distraction while dean retains serenity, control, composure, kindness, and wisdom. remember the crazy woman who lives in “the palace,” or the constantly crazed look on sister ruth’s face (who looks so much like anne heche, it’s uncanny). the only nuns who ultimately remain unscathed are the mannish, strong sister briony and the simple-minded sister honey. so maybe men are stronger and more able to endure psychic turmoil because they are simpler, whereas women are intrinsically morbid.

    okay, i’m going to stop here. there is much more to say, but i want to see what others think before rattling off more.

  2. I’m glad I watched this, but I found myself admiring it more than enjoying it. The overwrought emotion assaulted my cynical postmodern sensibilities (that’s my excuse anyway). It is certainly lush, and there are some fine performances, but ultimately, the cartoonish colonial scenes and deferential natives made me pretty uncomfortable. I’m also still not sure how to react to the image of Sister Ruth that we are given near the end as she is framed in the doorway. Backlit, glowing eyes, dark red hair flowing behind her, and the lipstick dulled almost to black. She looks like Dark Phoenix, an avenging harridan, utterly crazed.

    What I did like was the set up: an almost Lord of the Flies scenario in which mostly young and inexperienced nuns have to face the challenges of a wild, inhospitable and savage environment. But to my mind it is a pity that the other challenges all melt away and sexual repression rapidly becomes the sole theme.

    I cannot think of another British film of that era that portrays a British colonial official in short shorts, outside of the pressed uniform we normally associate with such bureaucrats. The choice must have been deliberate, and I’m not sure what its purpose was. Has Dean “gone native” or is he deliberately tempting women with those fine British boarding school knees?

    As I look back on these comments, I wonder whether films can be “timeless” in the sense that other forms of art clearly can be. They paint such a vivid and complete picture of the world, and all but require you to enter that world completely. When the world depicted is as timebound and temporally alien as that in Black Narcissus, I found myself unable to suspend disbelief long enough to really enter that world and enjoy the film on its own terms.

  3. Chris–I get exactly what you mean. Dean was very hot. And he didn’t just slip down to short-shorts. He seemed to wear fewer and fewer garments each time he entered the nunnery.

    I want to push on a couple of things you noted, and tie in with Gio.

    First, the timeless/timebound quality. I, too, found myself admiring early on, although somewhere around when we see the gardening Sister’s gnarled hands, I got swept up in the feel, tone, form of the film. I wouldn’t call this suspending disbelief, however; it’s a different kind of suspension. For instance, when I watch Laurel and Hardy, or Singin’ in the Rain, or The Searchers, I’m always initially struggling past a sense of how “unreal” the films are–whereas even in a goofy modern-day artifice like Slither I can seemingly buy into the realities of the film. But I think the differences are aesthetic: those older films play by different artistic rules; everything from acting style to editing follow guidelines that strike us as artificial, simply because we’re acclimated to other modes. This strikes me as similar to other art forms–Rembrandt, Degas, and Dali strike the eye in different ways, but I’m not judging them necessarily in relation to their believability. It might be that because we’re not swamped all day long with paintings, but are immersed in filmed images, we’re able to see past the form-to-world assumptions that do disrupt our ability to enter the worlds of much older cinema.

    That said, your point about entering the world makes great sense to me, and seems particularly useful for examining this elaborately constructed other world.

    I agree about a lot of your other criticisms–but, like Gio, I found the emotional reach of the film to be almost contemporary in its sensibilities and effect. Yes, the way they set up the emotions seem antiquated, yet the kinds of emotions evoked–their messiness, their confusion–seem … well, I’m hesitant to use the word “timeless” but at least recognizable to my own confusions and mess. (Again, I like to imagine some perverse comparisons to flesh out my reaction to the film–and Blue Velvet strikes me as equally artificial, a world bound within the frame of the film, and analogous to Narcissus in its detailing of deep psychology.)

  4. I may be making excuses for myself when I wonder if film has a timeless character. I’m struck that my tastes in literature and painting are by no means contemporary, or rather they are all over the place in temporal terms. But with film, there is very little that I genuinely enjoy prior to the second half of the 1960s, which happens to be exactly how long I have been around.

    I do think that movies have a particular capacity to entirely envelop you and for that sensory experience to work, there has to be a degree of familiarity that is not necessary in other art forms.

    Or perhaps not. A good counter example for me would be ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ which is utterly other-worldly and emotionally over-the-top, but also completely absorbing. Perhaps the lack of spoken dialogue and remarkable soundtrack helps.

    Now I have to see ‘Blue Velvet’ again.

  5. “There’s something in the atmosphere that makes every thing seem exaggerated.” You tell ‘em Mr. Dean. The whole damn film is exaggeration writ large. Sexual repression is obviously a primitive, powerful force, but I can’t help but wonder what Powell and his partner were up to. Were these men gay? Powell once said his relationship with Pressburger was like “a marriage without sex.” Both men married (Powell at 79 to Thelma Schoonmacher of all people) and even had children but this film strikes me as woozy, swirly swooning camp.

    But to reference another popular movie with nuns, “let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” There are three short sequences that stand out to me. The first is the very opening moments. Black Narcissus announces itself with a burst of hypermasculinity: the well-oiled bodybuilder banging a gong under distributor J. Arthur Rank’s credit closely followed by the credit for Powell and Pressburger (“Produced, Written and Directed for the Screen by the Archers”). Here an arrow penetrates the bull’s eye of an archery target. This shot is followed by the oh so phallic Himalayan horns (these horns will reassert their potency later in the film in a duel-off of sorts with the vaginal bell the sisters use to communicate with the village below their improbably absurd mountain eyrie). The next shot is the positively serene and passively feminine image of Sister Clodagh in Calcutta—the carefully controlled composition resembling a painting by Vermeer. The juxtaposition of such potent signs (signs which mark the author-ity of the filmmakers) with the cool, neutral tones which make up the placid image of female contemplation sets up a tension between masculinity and femininity which fuel, I think, the film’s dark depths.

    A second moment occurs roughly mid-way through the film when Sister Ruth enters Sister Clodagh’s space screaming and hysterical, her habit covered in blood. The blood all but marks Ruth’s gender as we see two round blotches on Sister Ruth’s chest (her breasts) and a flow of vertical stripes of blood descending from her crotch. It is as if Ruth’s sexuality is written onto her body. This is a discomforting moment—a point in the dramatic action when I began to wonder if the filmmakers were projecting a kind of male hysteria onto Ruth’s body. The sisters rigid renouncement of their bodies and their sensual selves is starting to crumble at the seams. I guess the argument I’m leaning toward is that Black Narcissus dramatizes a hysterical response to female sexuality and female pleasure, but I would argue that it is no less ambivalent about masculinity. Indeed, I will argue the film is about the failings of masculinity (and therefore, perhaps, the failings of the Empire). The fact that the film emerges only two years after the WWII and that Pressburger escaped the Nazis in Hungary to emigrate to England are interesting to note.

    The key to all this is the stoically dashing Mr. Dean. I think we are meant to see the film through his eyes/gaze and it is his face in close-up that closes the film as both the palace and the nuns disappear into the mist. Still, he has got to be the queerest object of desire I have ever seen on celluloid. Indeed, he seems to be as internally tormented as any of the women. Are we meant to take this guy seriously? Did Powell and Pressburger? Yet women continue to throw themselves at him. Think of the moment when he rejects Ruth in his jungle abode with a shockingly melodramatic reading of the line “I don’t love anyone!” But it is Dean’s various entrances and exits which always amused me, and threw me off-balance, the most. His character exists somewhere between Indiana Jones and Peter Pan (or maybe one of Sabu’s child characters from the 1930s). That scene at the Christmas mass is the most memorable. Wearing a fur coat only Isaac Mizrahi could love, Dean enters, drunk, on that comically short white pony only to disrupt the ceremony with his boorishness and his booming yet beautiful harmonizing vocal during the carol. Rebuffed by Clodagh, Dean rambles off on said pony singing about pleasure (or the lack thereof) and the effeminate, vainglorious Young General (Sabu) slyly remarks, “I do like his voice.”

    What to say about the film’s treatment of colonization: I guess we can read it as a sort of allegory of imperialism and decolonization, but it’s a supremely bloodless allegory. The film’s action seems to suggest one should simply leave these natives—these noble savages—to their childlike ways yet Black Narcissus doesn’t really seem to be very interested in India/Nepal at all. Dean and Clodagh are foregrounded from the very beginning. The film’s representations of the natives as beautiful and industrious is problematic as these faces serve as little more than background images in a far more internecine battle between the Westerners who dominate the dramatic action. To be honest, I lost hold of any sense of India as a real place very quickly. Powell and Pressburger offer us a strangely eccentric technicolor dreamworld of exotic and erotic otherness without any hint of irony or critique (well, that’s not entirely fair . . . the reference to the perfume the Young General wears is perhaps the film’s most ironic moment). Their Indian subcontinent is a hermetically sealed, imperialist fantasy world—equal parts gothic Romanticism and Victorian restraint. Sitting on the edge of the universe, the Mopu Palace is an erotically charged pleasure dome in a sublime state of disrepair. The universe created is everything Deborah Kerr in her billowingly restrictive white nun’s habit will never allow herself to be.

    Some thoughts on genre: Black Narcissus has been described as melodrama but for most of the film I was reading it as a comedy—a comic structure similar to those of Shakespeare where the “comic themes of ritual assault on a central female figure” (to quote Northrop Frye) occur in a greenspace or greenworld far removed from civilization. The nuns do move into such a world, are enchanted by it even as the attempt to colonize it, but are pushed out in the final minutes. The emotionally turbulent rhythms which build to the spiritual exorcism of Sister Ruth’s sexually liberated self (the sexually liberated woman as monster) undercut the comic rhythms of the film’s narrative. I was also reminded of the erotically pleasurable Sanskrit dramas—say Kalidisa’s Shakuntala—of fifth century India during the time of the Gupta dynasty. Only here the sensuous pleasures of the rasas and bhavas collide into the rigid, ordered, impeccably white—western—world of the nuns. The film pits duty, order, reason and rationality against passion, carnal pleasures and the irrational. But the claustrophobic mise-en-scene keeps everything off balance.

    Stuff I liked: Sister Phillippa who sadly balks at her love for flowers because she fears she is “losing the spirit of our order.” Her face is so beautifully human and her hands so rough hewn and calloused; she almost makes Deborah Kerr look like a automaton.

    Kanchi dancing in the blue room. She is pleasure personified. The Young General never had a chance (but the film seems to suggest that no proper Westerner would fall for such a display).

    When Sister Clodagh screams out: “I couldn’t stop the wind from blowing and the air from being as clear as crystal, and I couldn’t hide the mountain.” This has to be a camp classic.

    The gorgeous shot at the end of the film as fat drops of rain plop down onto the supple green leaves before the storm washes everything away . . . literally. Here we have an extraordinary simple instance of visual and aural grandeur.

    The way all of the pent up sexual repression is displaced onto Ruth’s body as she is tossed over the mountain. This scene, with its ominous choral background music, plays like an exorcism. The whole scene plays out like the erratic, climatic dance which delivers structural harmony and metaphysical yugen (or grace) in Japanese Noh drama. Were Powell and Pressberger aware of Noh drama? Probably not but the scene reminds me of this anyway.

    Sister Clodagh’s memories of her past in Ireland (interesting Ireland given the film’s colonial subtext). Deborah Kerr is absolutely stunning yet I can’t tell which vision of femininity the filmmakers want the viewer to hold onto.

  6. I think Jeff’s remarks re genre are on target. Dean is trickster (I do hope I’m using that concept correctly); a Silenus- or Bacchus-like figure, or perhaps something like Puck or Ariel. His shorts, surely the most striking thing in the whole film, play into that (though I can’t say exactly why) as do his drunkenness and his “comically short pony”. (Doesn’t Silenus ride a donkey?) If this his function, then his hysterical “I don’t love anybody”, attempting, perhaps, to hint at a tortured past, is a big mis-step in the film (as, indeed, I think it is).

    I don’t think the film has any real interest in colonialism.

    At some point, Sister Phillipa says that the only ways to live in that environment are to give oneself up to it completely, like Mr. Dean, or to remove oneself from it entirely, like the holy man. That’s a stark presentation of the duality of spirit versus body. Are the nuns trying, and failing, to find a middle way through it?

  7. Jeff said lots of smart things, only some of which I think I can muster a reaction to, and not just yet. (I’m particularly interested in the ‘green world’/comedy proposition.)

    But Simon’s last good point sparks a more immediate reaction:
    “At some point, Sister Phillipa says that the only ways to live in that environment are to give oneself up to it completely, like Mr. Dean, or to remove oneself from it entirely, like the holy man. That’s a stark presentation of the duality of spirit versus body. Are the nuns trying, and failing, to find a middle way through it?”

    Yes–I felt that tension, as well, and you define the opposition on the film’s terms very well. The nuns’ order is based on grounded, practical, material work… and work with a specific “good” attached to it: real sustenance for the body, real education for the mind, real medicine for the ailing, etc. The goal seems to be that, through a rigorous focus on *only* the material and pragmatic, you can dismiss the self and the vicissitudes of desire/vanity to be closer to god. That said, the nuns on the mountaintop instantly find that it’s hard to separate the material practices from pleasure or need or desire or the self–while impractical (and in fact dangerous in the bigger picture), Sister Honey offers a comforting pseudo-medicine for the dying child; Sister Philippa plants a garden. Before falling into desire and (later) the valley, Ruth clearly loves ringing the bells. Duty becomes desirable, one’s own desires intertwine confusingly with the dutiful work for others…

    And I’m not sure where to go with it, except that the film seems to challenge the ostensible opposition of carnal/physical and ascetic/spiritual — instead noting how the two blur together. Less a failed middle way than a challenge to the notion that there is an either/or?

    (I’d be tempted to tie this to a critique of masculinity, following Jeff, but maybe he or someone else could take up that idea. I’d note that the women explicitly live and work in community… and even their “failings” are by-products of intimacy with others. I’m not sure what to make of that, except to note that the absolute detachment from the world and the (empty?) “don’t-love-anybody” selfish sensuality are both taken up by men.)

    And I’m still struck by the parallels with the film’s form–instead of the opposition between the physical and the spiritual, we might examine how the film explores the ostensible dichotomy of the realistic and the artificial, or even of image and narrative…. and undercuts the oppositions there, too.

    I’m not sure I buy that the film doesn’t have any real interest in colonialism. It is pointedly set in the distant colonies, pointedly plays with the “culture” of sensuality (in the murals on the wall of the keep, or in Kanchi’s dance) of the colonized versus the careful polite repressions of the British (no offense intended, Howell), explicitly draws parallels between the hierarchies of power/order in the nunnery, between men and women, and between Europeans and the local inhabitants. I guess you could argue that the film uses the colony like a painted backdrop–just a “sign” of a particular richly-symbolic space, like the mountains on the matte drawings. (In his autobiography, Powell notes that the production was in luck, given the glut of “Asians” that had immigrated to Britain following/during WWII–and he carefully notes that they were able to make use of Pakistanis, Nepalese, Indians, and so on… defining a range of ethnicities which the film casually glosses over.) But even if that’s the case, Achebe’s critique of Conrad’s “Heart” would seem applicable–to make mere symbols out of real cultures and people is another marker of a colonial project.

  8. I might argue with Mike as to the women’s work:

    The nuns’ order is based on grounded, practical, material work… and work with a specific “good” attached to it: real sustenance for the body, real education for the mind, real medicine for the ailing, etc.

    On the surface this may be true but we really don’t see it. There is that outrageous scene with Sister Briony and the tablets she puts in the water as all the natives thrust their hands into the air for Western magic/medicine. And there is the scene with the sick infant. But mostly the women brood over the climate (or enchantment or whatever you want to call it) that forces their repressions to light. We don’t really see the sisters’ grounded, practical, material work.

  9. Simon, I had to look up Silenus but it is a good reference/point of entry and he does indeed ride a donkey. Silenus and Puck and even Ariel are good mythical figures to ponder when it comes to Dean. Mr. Dean certainly doesn’t lead anyone anywhere (in fact it seems as if he would like for them all to go home–whatever that is) but it does allow us to, perhaps, read against the text to search out other possible meanings in the film.

    Gio, you wrote

    i suggest that what they are most interested in is how close we are to being haunted, even unravelled, by dark emotions and dark memories.

    This might be an alternative way to engage Dean. If your thesis is on target, do you think the film accomplishes this goal?

  10. you know, jeff, i find it a bit perplexing that even a film that is so intensely devoted to women’s feelings should have engendered a discussion about masculinity. maybe we are all drawn to what is close to us, and i suppose if you are a man you are more interested in masculinity than in femininity, in some respects. yet… i dunno, i think i’m a bit masculinity-ed out — the world cup, the senate debate about war… this rampant masculinity has me enervated, somewhat.

    but yes, the film does evoke haunting inner feelings, though, because, as i and others said, it is palpably dated, such evoking didn’t touch me deeply.

  11. I’m not trying to steer the film away from intelligent conversations about female subjectivity. I guess I simply think the film to be afraid of such representations. How might a feminist spectator as critic read against the text here? How can we recuperate the female subject in this film? I do believe one of the reasons we have all latched onto Sister Phillippa is to accomplish exactly that. But you’re right. Even feminists often get caught up in a text’s unwillingness to fully engage female desire and the female subject (thus, foregrounding the male once again). Maybe you should choose Holofcener for July?

  12. as i tried to make clear in my comment, i think the film does grapple with representations of female desire. i think, in fact, that it does it quite well. maybe we didn’t talk enough about sister clodagh, who struggles with past yearnings and with a sticky personality, only to emerge purified, stronger, and mellower. at the end she appears as positively serene.

    i saw this film as a genuine investigation into competing pulls into a woman’s life: lust, loss, spiritual yearning, compassion, asceticism, sisterhood, the body…

    dean is a beautiful and powerfully masculine presence, and he unravels the already weak sister ruth while making clodagh stronger and, simultaneously, softer and more feminine. at the end, he is the one who’s left pining, while she assuredly moves on.

  13. I’m coming to this discussion late, having waited for my Netflix selection to arrive finally. And it seems that most of the intelligent things have already been said by Mike, Jeff, Gio and Simon. so I’ll simply note a few things and see if there’s any discussion left in this.

    1. Dean: I found the actor for this role unconvincing and kept thinking how much the role needed an actor like Richard Burton who could portray cynicism, ambivalence and unplumbed depths so well. Dean seems to me somewhat unconvincing as the masculine figure over whom Sister Clodagh and sister Ruth would form such a rivalry. Is it simply because of the short shorts, or because he has “surrendered” to sensuality–his whiskey, his elaborate coffee machine, his reputation for conquests of the “native” girls, etc. His kindness and understanding are rather unconvincing–I believe he says things like “Now dear girl, don’t carry on so.” I honestly don’t know how to take his statement “I don’t love anyone!” Because he’s selfishly incapable of love, or, as the final scenes suggest, he has squashed his love for Clodagh out of..what? respect for her vocation, disgust with her stiff-backed nature, fear of her strength, fear of engaging with the ‘west’ now that he has become a kind of village rogue? I think the film requires a more supple and complex view of masculinity, so that it does not suggest that the mere presence of cynical detached masculinity is enough to send the nuns into a tizzy. Of course I may be overlooking one angle—that it is not Dean himself who really precipitates the crisis, but Clodagh and Ruth’s own split natures, which simply latch onto a convenient “external object” as a means for self-deconstruction.

    2. This brings me to the next point….I take Clodagh of course to be the central figure here, and the film’s critique of self to be directed at her, at her coldness, arrogance, self-regard and control. The film suggests to me the idea that self-abnegation is most often its opposite, self-aggrandizement disguising itself behind modesty and self-denial. The self is at its most domineering when pretending to have devoted itself to its cultivated denial. I think this film would be beautiful on a double bill with Abel Ferrera’s Ms. 45. Clodagh contrasts with the genuine self-denial of Christ and the holy man. I don’t know how seriously to take the holy man character but the least that can be said for him is that he enacts his renunciation in a very direct and irrefutable way. I also do not know how to take the film’s ending–do Clodagh’s wan smiles and willingness to extend her hand to Dean indicate that she has in fact “learned” to be less inflexible and more Christ-like? Or is she a hopeless case as she herself suggests when saying that she will have to remind herself a thousand times each day of her fall from power. The film is so strange because she is really an unappealing character who becomes only more human at the cost of someone else’s insanity and death. Wow, what will it take for her to smile fully–a mass suicide over a cliff? For my reading the film works best as a careful but stylistically heightened dissection of the pretensions of the ascetic self, and of the implicit will to power concealed by the “desire to serve.” Clodagh does not really take to heart (does she at the end) the Reverend Sister’s remark that “The superior of all is the servant of all.” The instruction to Dean to take care of Ruth’s grave strikes me as ripe with ambiguity; the Sister Superior whose lack of feeling hastened the crisis and the rogue who reacted to Ruth’s anguished confession with a remarkable hardness are now going to set themselves up as caretakers of Ruth’s memory. I think this point would be more forceful if Ruth had been portrayed less monstrously, but I still see an implicit critique of the self-regard of Clodagh and Dean at the film’s end. As a critique of the self’s dangerously complex ability to deceive itself and to dominate the world so much so that reality is obscured Black Narcisuss reminds me of such disparate films as King of New York, Lawrence of Arabia, Taxi Driver and Vertigo.

    3. Rather than being unconcerned with colonialism or merely using it as a convenient backdrop which could be switched with any other exotic locale, the film seems to me to be steeped in a certain colonialist kind of consciousness. Here, Mike’s comparisons to Passage to India and Heart of Darkness are rather apt. The western psyche becomes fragmented when placed in the kind of atmosphere where sensuality and instinct rule, available only where the primitive natives are both childlike and ruthlessly cruel (murdering the former agent for his accident with a child). These “natives” are connected with nature whose duality is demonstrated by its unforgiving wind, on one hand, and its lush beauty, on the other. The more unnatural, but better cultivated and more “moral” westerner, becomes unhinged in such an environment. The danger is best represented by the idiot sex kitten Kenchi. Why this response on the part of the westerner? I’m not sure–because the costs of repression are too high, because the Europeans should have stayed away in the first place,because the identification of sex with nature unmoors it from all claims of domesticity, because the westerner is badly held together by a delicate sense of self-importance and righteousness? I’m not sure the issue can really be resolved–hence, Black Narcissus as well as Heart of Darkness work both as critiques of colonialism and architects of the orientalist assumptions that undergird exploitative colonialism. But the film’s lack of concern with the psychology of the so-called native (or its portrayal of that psychology in the simplistic terms of Kenchi’s sensuality and the young general’s instinctual irresponsibility)is not exactly the same thing as the film lacking an interest in colonialism. In the internal world the westerner pays for its individual complexity and agency by featuring itself always as the primary protagonist in endless dramas of regret, nostalgia, loss, fear and self-assertion. In the external world, doubt is by corporate agreement exorcised through vigorous practical action and the deployment of doctrines of improvement inflicted on the less tortured (or at least tortured in a way not entirely readable to the westerner). In Black Narcissus the “work” of the sisters has a double meaning—both the work they wish to perform on the world and the internal work they must constantly perform to keep their selves intact. The contact with people unused to this work forces a crisis. Again, that can be taken as a critique of the impossibility of this work and a refusal to come to terms with how the self of the other is constructed.

    by the way, the scene with the lipstick reminded me of Blue Velvet big time. pretty pretty.

  14. this is an excellent, very nicely written, very lucid addition to the dialogue on BN. i am looking forward to munching on it. (“undergird”??? the english language nevel fails to surprise).

  15. Michael, I love your reading/s–and am particularly interested in the analysis of how self/subjectivity are worked out in the film.

    I’d like to tie that into the film’s aesthetics. I am still trying to grapple not just with the film’s “content”–say, the problems of selfhood–but how the film’s formal precision and idiosyncrasy also do some work. For instance, I was wondering if the film’s form is another way to try to get outside the self-ishness of classical narrative? We could (many have) argue(d) that narrative is a form which dovetails with a modern Western subject; classical film narratives have also been critiqued as mechanisms for reproducing (through audience identification, as well as plotted identities) certain visions of Self. In a film highly suspect of the ways even ostensibly self-negating discourses reinscribe or reinforce this Western self (isolated, on a mountaintop looking down), might the emphasis on the image (the glorious compositions, the art production) be another way to break up narrative complicity with these discourses? Music, image–as opposed to the religious, hedonistic, and ascetic models, we could have an aesthetic approach?

    I’m not sure what exactly I mean, but… I toss it out as a general engagement with MF’s recent smart thoughts.

  16. Mike–thanks! your formal concerns seem exactly right to me but I haven’t figured out yet what to make of them–certainly there is more going on than simply a “pretty film” as for subjectivity, I can say that BN is conventional in the sense that it has a protagonist, conflicts, events, etc., but it also struck me as something of a very distanced film, holding the spectator at arms length, particularly by having a rather impenetrable heroine (no nun puns intended, know what I mean?).

    I have noticed a similar richness in other michael powell films–colonel blimp, stairway to heaven and peeping tom (the only others I’ve seen). there’s something going on there with the attention lavished on color and composition but I don’t know how to put my finger on it.

  17. I apologize for not contributing. I have had only sporadic access to the internet for about two weeks, so I haven’t been able to do any sustained blog writing. We just bought a house but won’t be moving in until early August. We’re living in a temporary house on Folly Island–no mail delivery, no internet. Just want to note, however, that I want very much to post something and will do so when I can.

  18. Congrats on the new home as well. I’ll be down south on the Carolina coast in a couple of weeks, maybe we’ll swing by and paint a wall!

  19. Jeff, I’m going to be painting. Come paint my dining room.

    John, congrats. And I really look forward to you piping up about the film, too, when you get the chance.

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