If ever a director were put to the task of showing and not telling, the story of Black Narcissus would prove to be a prime example of such an outcome. A select group of nuns travel to the Himalayas in order to set up a convent for the local villagers, with local adventurous Brit ‘Dean’ providing a dose of sexuality to the otherwise orderly commune. By using bold colour palettes, subtle character development and striking set designs, the film presents itself in many different lights throughout, resulting in the nervous breakdown of one particularly tortured nun.
Some of the most credited aspects of the film come from its uncannily realistic set designs, the backgrounds of which were made primarily from matte paintings to create the illusion of depth in a Himalayan environment (see Fig 2). “The glass painting technique involved hanging a sheet of glass between the camera and the scene, and painting in the view you needed.” (Howells, 2011) Similar techniques have also been linked to the 1933 classic King Kong, another exotic landscape which would have been inaccessible to such a film crew at the time. The use of matte paintings in Black Narcissus is noted for its incredible use of colour, which progressively changes depending on the atmosphere of the film. The use of the colour red is a particularly vital link to sexuality in this context, as it provides no graphic or obvious content, but does expose the innocent nature of the nunnery.
After traversing overseas, hints of red begin to appear where particularly sexual undertones or repression are present. At first we see the young Indian general wearing a completely red outfit, a colour scheme later followed by his love interest Kanchi. “It is in the second half of the film where Powell’s use of Technicolor is stunning. The introduction of the more vibrant hues dominate the film.” (Mirasol, 2010) Later on in the film, the dominating hues completely surround Sister Clodagh as she finds herself utterly suffocated by desire which, by the final act, has completely taken over, (see Fig 3) resulting in a tightly fitting red dress and classic red lipstick to provide visual explanation of her burgeoning sexuality.
Despite the supposed paradise in which the 1947 India dwells, it has been speculated that the film was produced to parallel the independence of the country at the time. “India achieved independence on August 14, 1947, and the final images of Black Narcissus, of a procession down from the mountain top, seem to anticipate the British departure.” (Kehr, 2001) Following this line of logic, it would seem appropriate for British filmmakers to produce a picture in which they are seen to be delivering a service to the Indian people and leaving them to their own devices in a peaceful manner.
For subject matter regarded as ‘dangerous territory’ in the 1940’s, Black Narcissus defies genres by presenting itself as a very mixed and interpretive piece of film history; an area not likely to be replaced any time soon.
Howells, M. (2011) Production Design in Black Narcissus
http://guru.bafta.org/behind-mask-production-design-black-narcissus (Accessed on 30/11/13)
Mirasol, M. (2010) Black Narcissus Review
http://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/black-narcissus-which-electrified-scorsese (Accessed on 30/11/13)
Kehr, D. (2001) Black Narcissus Review
http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/94-black-narcissus (Accessed on 30/11/13)
Fig 1. Black Narcissus Poster (1947) From: Black Narcissus - Directed by: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Posters/B/Poster%20-%20Black%20Narcissus_01.jpg (Accessed on 30/11/13)
Fig 2. Black Narcissus Still (1947) From: Black Narcissus - Directed by: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-oUc1MAz2qOg/TWr9lwopmII/AAAAAAAAD_E/wSFw7Gud52w/s640/black+narc4.jpg (Accessed on 30/11/13)
Fig 3. Black Narcissus Still (1947) From: Black Narcissus - Directed by: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
http://www.jigsawlounge.co.uk/film/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/narc3.jpg (Accessed on 30/11/13)