Saturday, 26 November 2016

Black Narcissus - Film Review

Film Review-Black Narcissus

fig.1 Film Poster
‘Black Narcissus’ is a 1947 film, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger which is based upon Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel with the following name. While the film can be acknowledged for many attributes from the juxtaposing set design to symbolism the most notable feature is the use of techniques to form awe inspiring shots.

The story revolves around a convent of nuns who have been sent by their order to perform charity work for the local people of the Himalayas. To help set up the school and hospital the local British agent, Mr Dean, is sent to assist the group. With the involvement of the local people and remote location the nuns slowly lose sight of their true aim and path with God.  Dean’s influence on the group eventually leads to the death of one of the nuns, Sister Ruth, leading Sister Clodagh and the rest of the group to leave the Himalayas.

Firstly, looking at the technical elements of the film one of the most notable features is the use of camera tricks to flesh out the scene. Despite being set in the Himalayas the film was captured and completed in England. To achieve one of the most effective shots (fig.1) a matte painting is used to acquire an in depth and rather believable illusion. It is only on closer inspection that one can see through the painting giving a sense of grandeur and space in combination with the well placed camera angle.
fig.2 cliff scene

fig.3 before matte painting

Civilized, worldly, daring and obliquely discreet in conveying the gradual disintegration of the nuns’ psyches” (Haver, 1998), another notable factor within ‘Black Narcissus’ is the underlying theme of the film. As the nuns set out to complete the task that has been given to them difficulties begin to  arise with increasing sexual tension adding to the friction between the Sisters. Both Powell and Pressburger make great use of symbolism throughout the film, some more subtle than others they all relate to the inner demons that the Sisters collectively carry.  

With the use of Technicolor the matte paintings are brought to life and only enhance the symbolism in a range of hues. An effective scene that highlights both the use of colour and symbolism is the application of lipstick by Sister Ruth. “An unsurpassed showcase for the possibilities of Technicolor — heightens the very meaning of the story, as a slash of red lipstick clashes with the bleached white” (Thomas, 2005), with lipstick being used to attract another by highlighting one’s sexual appeal the action of reddening the lips indicates Ruth’s loss of control over her sexual desires. Not only does the use of colour draw the viewer’s attention to the character but also portrays the clash between the path of God and inner desire. At one end Ruth stands in her dress that describes her figure while Clodagh stands in her baggier white nun tunic. While never directly stated being only hinted at, the true nature of the film becomes clear, “It's holiness against the libido, civility against the wild, control vs. desire.” (Mirasol, 2010).

fig.4 application of lipstick

The symbolism goes on with one of the Sisters planting flowers rather than vegetables. As the flowers bloom a colourful display of nature is shown, one that is purely for the act of reproduction juxtaposing the purpose of the vegetables which is solely for consumption. When interpreting the scene for what is there one can see a nun losing herself to the beauty of nature forgetting about purpose and reason. Another interpretation is that with the flowers in full bloom she is losing herself to lust.

In the end Powell and Pressburger’s film, ‘Black Narcissus’ is one that indirectly provokes thought about the balance of ‘control and desire’. At the same time it also displays a large range of technical marvels to accompany these concepts leading to a visually appealing piece. 

Illustration list

fig.1, Website (accessed 26/11/16)
fig.2, Website (accessed 26/11/16)
fig.3, Website (accessed 26/11/16)
fig.4, Website (accessed 26/11/16)


Haver, Ronald (1998) Black Narcissus (accessed 26/11/16)
Mirasol, Michael (2010) "BLACK NARCISSUS," WHICH ELECTRIFIED SCORSESE (accessed 26/11/16)
Thomas, William (2005) Black Narcissus Review (accessed 26/11/16)

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