Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Black Narcissus Review

Black Narcissus, 1947, is an unusual mix of film genres. Visually stunning throughout, filmed in full Technicolor with a strong use of matte painting backdrops (The film was shot at Pinewood studios, but you would never think so (fig 1)), the film slowly takes a symbolic and erotic turn as it plays through. “it's a travelogue/drama, and then it suddenly becomes a German expressionist horror film.” (Dessem: 2009) as well as exploring the sexual suppression of the nuns, there is also underlying themes of British relationships with India- with the film being released just a few months before India gained independence from Britain.
(fig 1) Temple and Himalayan matte painting
 Black Narcissus is most famous for its use of colour, shifting from very monochromatic to bright reds and blues as the film progresses. The films cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, said on the subject “Van Gogh's use of complementary colors inspired my choice to contrast the greenish fill lights with red sunlight effects. I like the "anger" in Van Gogh's palette, and truly the effect on screen is a deliciously ambiguous mix of violence and accord” Red is used as an erotic symbol throughout the film. More subtly at first such as red flowers wrongfully being planted in the libidinal garden (with the nun who plants them admitting they remind her of her past before she joined the nunnery), and the prince- a sexualised character throughout, wearing all red in the main room of the nunnery (of course, the bluest room of all) (fig 2).
(fig 2) Young General in all red
Towards the end of the film, sister Ruth slowly applies red lipstick and from then onward the cinematography turns sinister, more red hues creeping up on the other nuns – their unwanted sexual desires. Not only a metaphor but also giving the film a sudden old horror feel. (fig 3)

(fig 3) Red light shining on Sister Ruth
The nuns themselves, coming from pale blue beginnings, move from a pale blue nunnery, into the bluest room in the palace. Even their faces are monochromatic- their lips painted paler to give an even more asexual appearance. Despite this, there is still something sexual about their elongated pauses between words and the ringing of the bell, which goes on for longer than is comfortable- all of this setting the scene for later on in the film.

  The racial implications and stereotypes throughout the film, although questionable, have undeniable links to the relationship between the (now) two empires. The most obvious of these is Joseph, the young Indian English interpreter. His presence alone, teaching the young children seems to perhaps imply something about the birth of the nearly independent Indian empire, fending for itself smartly using what they learnt from the English. There is also something satirical behind Joseph teaching the young children English words such as "cannon," "warship," "bayonet," "dagger," and "gun" in an attempt to civilise them. This is perhaps picking fun at the stereotype of Britain giving unwanted and often destructive help. (fig 4) This extends to the nun’s services in the village – “The nuns’ altruistic attempt to provide essential services to the local native population at Mopu is shown, after all, to be an utterly futile exercise.” (Cross, 2007: 610)

(fig 4) Joseph teaching the other children

Mathew Dessem, (2009) #93: Black Narcissus at http://criterioncollection.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/93-black-narcissus.html

Mary Bowen, (2004) Blue Nun/Red Desire:
The Palette of Piety, Passion, and Monstrosity in Black Narcissus 
at http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/47_BN/MMB.html

Robert Cross (2007) Black Narcissus: A Post-colonial Empire Film? :610

 (fig 1) Still from Black Narcissus at http://thefilmemporium.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/classic-throwback-black-narcissus.html

(fig 2) Still from Black Narcissus at http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/47_BN/MMB.html

(fig 3) Still from Black Narcissus  at http://videokrypt.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/black-narcissus-nuns-in-heat-in-glorious-technicolour/

(fig 4) Still from Black Narcissus at http://criterioncollection.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/93-black-narcissus.html

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Livi - actually 'review' is no longer what you're doing here - this is the stuff of engaging written assignments and your synthesis skills (the ability to create new arguments from separate ideas) are growing in sophistication. Also - loved this description: 'the libidinal garden' - wonderful. This has the makings of a much more developed, more ambitious written assignment. Well done :)

    Just one correction though; you refer to the film as 'The Black Narcissus' in your opening line - just get rid of that 'The' and make me even happier.