Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) is an eternal puzzle – an old, shapeshifting hassle with an internal design so densely embroidered that it can often seem inaccessible to not only conventional, browser-cinephiles, but also to the long-time fans of the cross-continental directorial tagteam. From among the various natural head-scratchers the film elicits, the most rampant is its strange, unhealthy obsession with its location: a palace in Mopu, an ancient semi-town in North-Eastern India. Even more fraught with seeming problems is its conception of the place as a peculiar, mystical boudoir: a place where the winds carry old secrets, the locals laugh at casual violence, which evokes a sinister, atypical horniness even within the most frigid and where ghosts of a long bygone past roam, free to slay.
Much of the manner in which the film is perceived is a yield of its own fundamental description: the British return to an old colony – one the Imperialist regime departed from a mere two years earlier – to chronicle its inherent, indigenous arbitrariness. Naturally, it is an arrangement fraught with problems; almost as if on impulse, a few automatic, first-letter-in-caps flags tend to be raised: white man’s gaze, racism, imperialist nostalgia, Orientalism, exoticism – but I suspect that in relation to Black Narcissus (as with any other situation to which they are conventionally ascribed), these are reductive labels, false alarms designed to inhibit discussion and in a 21st century world, rudimentary enough to be anachronistic.
The larger truth of Black Narcissus is of course, that it is a horror film. This means that its investment in its setting, an entity that exists outside of its characters (it is environment; it surrounds them), is ultimately a technique to look inside them. Near the closing of the film, as the procession of nuns and their mules moves downhill, away from the site of their aborted mission, local savage Mr. Dean takes a final, conclusive look at a structure in the distance: smug in its victory, seated on the edge of a tall cliff, a seemingly ordinary, even harmless sediment of white. But as we know by this point, it is the location of all terror, the reservoir of a thousand past failures, office of the devil, the place where the nuns attempted in vain to setup a school, a hospital.
The definitive image of horror is not that of the supernatural entity, the ghost, but a postcard which puts on full, explicit, indubitable display the scene of all crime. A brief parlor trick: when all the horror has transpired and its victims depart from the location one by one as an admission of defeat, a single character turns to look at the autonomous enclosure where all suffering resides – a house, an island, a forest, a building. This throwaway glance is a significant gesture, for it calcifies the object in the past, renders it sterile, marks it as a space left behind by the characters (and usually, this final image is a wide-shot too, to emphasize on this physical distance). It is a pertinent example of cinema using space to mark time – a classical device rendered obsolete by the post-digital age (and so, there is no longer a distinction between tenses; the ghost can no longer be left behind, since It Follows – and other titles from a world without endpoints: The Ring, The Grudge).
As such, Black Narcissus occupies a curious, double-place within the larger filmography of The Archers – almost an artistic anomaly, but one that, at the same time, also shares an essential trait with films like The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – in that, it is a treatise on repression, on delusion. The film renders Mopu strange or mystical if you may, to reveal truths not about the location – but instead, about the outsiders who arrive to inhabit it (a feature, an affinity it shares with Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, or even more significantly, with Ray’s The Postmaster). Their perception of the darkness in their surroundings is actually therefore, an autograph of their own neurosis, their hypocrisy, a record of the deficiencies in their own being.
The nuns who represent the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in the film all have their own crises: sexual desire, false nostalgia, a loss of faith, exhaustion, advancing age – that they refuse to acknowledge in the name of a supposed, grander purpose (of which, the film denies them any fulfillment; they do not save a life, they do not educate anyone, they are practically useless). Their relocation in this new setting (specifically, as the film would have it – altitude: 9000 feet, cold on most days, in front of a mountain range as tall as the Everest) induces an introspection that gradually decomposes the outer coating they have wrapped their psychology in, revealing their true, rough-edged, ugly, human failures.
From the moment the nuns enter the house (and we enter the film, so to say), ‘something’s amiss’ – this, in fact, becomes a common, recurring proclamation. The air is uncomfortable, too clean, the general atmosphere a repository of secrets. The nurses begin to get spots on their arms but soldier on – it is a world where moderation is no longer a permissible approach, an alien land where they must choose between ridiculous passion (typified by the vulgar, profane Kainchi, the young maid) and extreme austerity (the holy man who sits in the mountains).
Initially, this is a tough, internal dilemma, but in a monumental, central scene, is suddenly manifest as a very actual, tangible challenge: on one unnaturally quiet, orange evening, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) summons Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) to her room. Clodagh, the Sister Superior, begins to condescend towards her more inexperienced colleague, admonish her for her general carelessness (this is a false ruse, a projection of Sister Clodagh’s own impotency onto another individual) when suddenly, through a remarkable collapse of the conventional shot-reverse shot system, we witness Sister Clodagh recoil in utter horror at what she sees in front of her. We don’t share her vantage point yet, but the fear has metastasized to us, and then, a blunt close-up: Sister Ruth, the arcs of her eyes bloodied, pupils wet, head tilted down half a moon, a wry smile, sweaty forehead, the force of evil. Caution to the wind, Sister Ruth damns Sister Clodagh’s pretence and declares, proudly, without shame, her explosive passion for Mr. Dean and his body. Eventually, this will consume and transform her, she will become a jealous, conniving, feral object of passion, a Gialli vamp not hesitant even of resorting to murder to achieve pleasure she so yearns for.
This point onwards, therefore, the struggle between the two characters will become the main contest of the film, its chief impulse. It will expand from Sister Clodagh’s small cabin and devour the entire premises of the Order, which will transform slowly into an expressionist purgatory: walls buttered with peculiar shadows, crimson sunlight filtering through tiny windows, staircases that resemble broken bottles – results achieved through a system of canted angles, backlit, low-key photography, general optical horror. Powell and Pressburger, along with legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, make visual choices that let the entrails of their characters’ tattered psychological states spill out and soil the corridors, verandahs, rooms, staircases and walkways of the building.
About dubbing, Jean Renoir famously said: ‘It is perhaps an act of the devil himself. Consider that it basically entails allowing the voice of one person inhabit the other.’ Black Narcissus belongs to a tradition of the classical cinema that simulates a similar repossession of the body by a foreign essence: the film made on the studio-lot, on sets that are a facsimile rendering of an original that exists elsewhere. The Mopu of Black Narcissus is a simulation in London’s Pinewood studios, its vast open skies and mountain ranges large-scale matte paintings. Needless to say, films made on the studio-lot weren’t all spook-movies, but it is in horror where the fact of the shooting’s physical removal from the actual space assumes a higher, more interesting connotation: so much of Black Narcissus is really about the internal fracture in the devotion of these nuns – they are physically all here, in front of us, but mentally, at home, or with their lover, perhaps in bed. The artifice of the studio lot results in an interesting double-removal: the character, from where she supposedly is, but also of the actor, from where she supposedly is.
In this, Powell-Pressburger’s near-impressionistic, poetic view of India emerges as a primary example of how cinema cultivates spaces in its own image. Unlike television, where space exists merely as physical reality (defined therefore by volume, area – specific features) that allows characters to enter/exit a narrative circumstance; in the cinema, a character’s environment seems to emerge from him, and exists, therefore, as a yield of his psyche. In television, people inhabit spaces, but in film, it is space that inhabits people. Black Narcissus, which is informed by two great traditions that perhaps illustrate this feature of the cinema best: German silent films and the house-horror films of the 1940s – uses its characters’ immediate milieu to induce a nasty, raging firestorm that will not leave anyone standing by the time it is done.