Comfortable and Furious

Black Narcissus (1947)

Underneath the habits, stoic facades, and judgmental sneers, nuns (especially of the Anglican variety) are coiled jungle cats of intoxicating lust; waiting to burst forth, reject God, and commit murder if necessary. They repress and divert, not only to persevere despite overwhelming guilt and shame, but also to prevent a truly catastrophic immersion in the life of a common trollop. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 Technicolor smut-fest Black Narcissus, easily the sexiest movie ever made about God’s humble servants, takes no cheap shots, nor does it traffic in falsehoods. It merely asserts — firmly, studiously, though never unfairly — that those who devote their lives to religion and its principles of self-denial are but a hairy-chested, short-shorts-wearing hunk away from gathering together their crucifix collections and setting them aflame. 

In many ways, this retreat to the Himalayas is an open admission of failure, as it is believed that in a spot this remote and isolated, the eye has little chance to wander. It’s the removal of temptation altogether, in fact. But they didn’t count on the raw masculinity only the mountains can heave from its loins, nor did they anticipate that the very spot where an Old General’s concubines once frolicked would so possess their spirits that they’d finally go mad with desire. It’s the antithesis of The Sound of Music; the defiant answer to Nunsense; a more vivid realization, even, than Sister Act. What’s more, it’s the boldest leap yet into a whirling cauldron of human need; and how every single declaration or push in the direction of a deity is a means by which to avoid the depth of one’s perversions.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) leads her fellow nuns as lambs to slaughter, and it is her marble exterior that masks the deepest regret. As expressed in flashbacks (curiously cut in many U.S. prints, not that the Catholic Legion of Decency had anything to do with it), Clodagh had a life before the nunnery; one of both joy and fulfillment, she was led to the convent only after her lover left for America and refused to get married. In these scenes, she is spirited and sexy, and as such, contradicts the long-held notion that God’s faithful worker bees are “called” from an early age.

Quite obviously, this woman had nowhere else to go once her vagina wasn’t enough to keep a man on the right side of the Atlantic. Given the film’s release date, such shocking revelations could not stand, as it would have been like, say, making a joke about how those too incompetent to get into college choose a life in the military. We want our soldiers — and sisters — clear of mind, pure of motive, and unquestioning in their obedience. Clodagh is, as expected, a nasty bitch after such a turn in her life, but her eyes betray an ever-burning longing for the very world that can’t be replicated within the sterile walls of a religious order. Her initial arrival — and early hardships — are balanced against a highly charged world, a very odd environment indeed for English broads who never hide their disdain for the Other. On the walls are paintings and symbols of passion and fornication, and one can sense that they all but release their buried toxins during the night in order to pry visitors away from the poor substitute of hollow tedium.

These “Eastern beings” — meditating gurus, expressive servants, and the like — are treated like objects by the nuns (and by the intended audience, no doubt), who seem untroubled by their racist rants in the face of what they claim is a loving savior. As usual, though, their loathing is being redirected from the internal to the external, and what they fear, they seek to destroy. They feel lost and alone in this mountain retreat, and a sense of inferiority overwhelms them, especially as they subconsciously compete for the attention of the one man who appears equipped to ravish them on the altar.

He is Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a sassy sort of fellow who doesn’t think twice about going shirtless in the dead of winter, while also squeezing into a pair of shorts so tight they’re all but a second skin. He’s dashing, rugged, and seemingly uninterested in their charitable “cause,” which of course makes him utterly irresistible. More than one of the nuns falls head over heels for him (when one sister isn’t giving him the once-over from across the room, another inhales the screen to reveal a glassy-eyed stare and mask of sweat). A few attribute their feelings to the altitude or even the weather, but there’s no mistaking the change in the air.

As if representing the buried desires of the nuns, Kanchi (Jean Simmons) then appears on the scene as a dancing, snakelike temptress; the very manifestation of what these women could be if they at last gave up this religious silliness. She’s an outsider of sorts, but playful and free, though she usually resorts to the expected moves of an Indian woman. As played by Ms. Simmons, she’s yet another example of early Hollywood’s attempts to dress up a white actress as an “exotic.” The bronzer and nose ring convince no one, but her mute flirtations are a camp delight (especially when she appears to be moving in for a blowjob with an unusually effete Young General, played by Sabu).

She doesn’t appear onscreen enough to challenge Jennifer Jones’ title as “most laughably miscast” (for her Mexican in Duel in the Sun, may she forever hold the title), but she’s so obviously game for the part that any and all overacting is immediately forgiven. To see her literally crawling on her hands and knees underneath a table is one of the era’s most insipid hours, but few could pull it off with Jean’s near-miraculous lack of guile. She’s not entirely necessary as a character (she’s less defined than any number of wooden benches we see in the course of the movie), but what would a fish-out-of-water tale be without the Brown Siren? So she’s not actually brown — little matter, as she so obviously memorized the memo concerning racial and ethnic stereotypes as to warrant a big hug.

It is Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), however, who most outrageously flips her lid, as she suddenly disposes of her religious attire and looks but a quick powder away from a night at the Copacabana. Announcing that she’s leaving the order for good, she is confronted in her room by Sister Clodagh, who hopes to outlast the girl with a Bible in hand. Alas, Clodagh falls asleep, and Ruth storms out — and eventually through the jungle — to find Mr. Dean’s outpost. Again, it’s telling that Dean can be located only after a frightening walk through a Tarzan-like maze (the soundtrack teems with the standard sounds from a thousand Saturday morning serials), revealing the wild animal that lies just beyond the artificial civilization so tenuously maintained by the nuns.

Ruth foolishly reveals her love for the man (it should surprise no one that he answers, “I can’t love anyone!”), when all that was required of her was a torn dress and kneepads. Rejected, she becomes frantically unhinged, and sets out to stalk and kill her superior. The “hunt” is another of the film’s highlights, a cat-and-mouse game that is more about belligerent emoting than anything resembling genuine suspense. But therein lies the appeal, as nothing less than grand opera could accompany the destruction of the sanctimonious edifice that is Western morality. Ruth tries to push Clodagh off a steep cliff while she rings the morning bell, but it is Ruth who falls in the end; the necessary punishment for a rebellious woman who did not understand that while she may lust, it is best to avoid the actual steps that see it to completion.

Filled with bold colors, grand gestures, and more sexual repression than any film dare possess, Black Narcissus succeeds on all counts for upholding the cherished standard of entertainment that defined the golden age before ironic detachment. Having been told correctly that they’d “leave before the rains break,” Sister Clodagh and the remaining nuns finally bolt the mysterious palace atop the mountain, leaving Dean to be drenched in a colossal downpour. The whole enterprise, from the free school to the hospital, fails miserably, and in the course of the disaster, a baby also dies; a seemingly unavoidable event that finally turns the reliably superstitious locals against the nuns for good. The “Black Narcissus” of the title is a perfume worn by the Young General, which not only attracts a lot of attention (it undoubtedly stirs the pots of everyone present), but also symbolizes the means by which we cover up our deeper, more real selves.

As the scent hides the actual smell of the human form (and perhaps the inherent cause for allure), so too does the confining habit keep nature from being revealed. Dean comes the closest to this more authentic state by preening half-naked most of the time, but even he hides behind the cloak of respectability, when he’d rather be slamming Sister Ruth within earshot of Clodagh’s disapproving jealousy. Perhaps there’s more than we know about his choice to remain on the mountain. Or maybe he is actually Jesus made flesh, both testing the convictions of his children, and quietly hoping that one of these days, the trap he so carefully lays will at last snag a willing sinner.



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One response to “Black Narcissus (1947)”

  1. Sam Weller (John Welsh) Avatar

    Most concise critique of Black Narcissus I’ve yet read. However; it begs the question: whatever happened to Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence ? (An attractive subject for your next rant, Matt).
    James Agee in his review offered that celibacy in itself is faintly obscene, then went on to suggest the story might lend itself to a musical version staring Rita Hayworth.
    (“The Lady is a Tramp”).
    ( The difference between chaste and celibate has apparently disappeared from the lexicon.)
    Hollywood is notorious for ignoring the writer, so must the critic follow suit? The film is based on a novel by Rumor Godden.

    Well Matt, now that you’ve wet your beak in non Raj India, why not take a shot at either or both film adaptations of Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came? In one the sin of adultery is punished, in the other it is not. Great special effects!

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