Monday, September 17, 2012

L&S Essentials #1: Black Narcissus

I've been wanting to begin cobbling together a list of "essential" films for some time now.  Every notebook I have from the 11th grade on has a half completed version of a 100 Favorite or 100 Best films list, but they always get cut short or run long, weighed down in some conflicted notion of what I believe should be on there and what is culturally expected to be on there.  So, instead I want to try and slowly force myself to revisit and write about the the films I personally feel are the real essentials as I think on them or return to them. One at a time, no big rush.  Maybe it'll stop at 100, maybe, like Ebert's list of Great Movies, it will go on indefinitely.  The one thing I know? There will be no particular order and every one of them will matter. 

 For the inaugural post, I've chosen a film I've fallen head over heels for this past year.  The first time I saw Black Narcissus I must have taken it in without really paying attention, letting it pass by as a pretty little thing in a fit of never ending Criterion collecting.  That was a few years ago, but for some reason last winter I found myself in need of some Technicolor and decided to give Powell & Pressburger's Himalayan melodrama another go.  I've watched it, I think, two or three times since then and with each repeat viewing I find another lush new detail to luxuriate in.

Black Narcissus operates on a fairly simplistic conceit: it's a tale of corrupted faith, repressed passions, and the madness the two of those can induce when mixed with the thin mountain air.  Deborah Kerr is Sister Clodagh, a fresh faced, disciplined nun charged with taking a gaggle of nuns to set up a school and hospital in the abandoned living quarters of royal concubines. The paintings on the wall do not match the new inhabitants, the building is built into a cliff face, the townspeople who come to them are jewel-covered narcissistic princes (Sabu), lusty young girls (Jean Simmons), and children who doubt them.  It's a haunted place, and the ghost is one of carnality. Their sole connection to their UK homeland is a British ex-pat (David Farrar) who teases and taunts them in a way that belittles their beliefs as much as it seems a flirtation.  He's not of their moral fiber, and he seems to take up a place in their collective consciousness.  Clodagh begins to drag up memories of  life prior to the habit, and the mentally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) seems further and further beyond her vows with each passing day.  There may be only so many outcomes, but the way the film reaches them is luxe and spellbinding.
In 1947, it wasn't particularly common for a relatively short melodrama to be shot with this kind of scope or scale.  Technicolor was still largely reserved for the big genre films: the epics, the musicals, the occasional western. Yet, Black Narcissus exists, and it may be safe to say than it's one of the finest uses of the Technicolor process you will ever lay eyes on.  It's a postcard oddity, and its every frame feels like you're being sucked into a museum diorama at the end of a darkened hall.  There's something appealing about the way the landscape has been disturbed, about the gothic touches, the atmospheric sound of the forever whipping wind, the shadow play, and the close ups of its leading ladies as their visages slip from lightness to dark.  Kathleen Byron is remarkable here, and Kerr is a tainted angel forever trying to hold steady though she teeters precariously at the brink of another possible life. The nuns possess cracking psyches and faces like primed canvases waiting for that crisp line of darkness to pass sinister across their searing eyes.  It's hard to imagine Wes Anderson didn't refer to this each day during the convent scenes for The Darjeeling Limited, and while some of the cultural treatments may be dated, the film's painterly use of light and framing makes it a terribly beautiful feat of cinematography all thanks to a master: Jack Cardiff.  Black Narcissus works its way into you like the delirium of that mountain air.  It's a chalk drawing you want desperately to jump into, all fluttering white habits against cobbled floors in deep blues and greens and yellowed tans, pastel clouds, soaring mountain peaks, and the vertigo-inducing depth of that aerial view.


  1. I like how every blogger is going through a list now.. I'm with BOT, you with Essentials, I know that Film Flare has a shame-list. But despite this - the movies keep it all interesting!

    1. Well, technically I've always been in the process of several lists. My 'shame list' was called 'Yes, Really' (there's a tag for it off to the side), but I haven't done an entry for that in probably close to a year. Instead I just focused on new releases and feature lists. Who knows, though, maybe I'll do that too once I get in the swing of this?

  2. Wow, I forgot how incredible this film looks. Must get a copy of the Blu-ray.

    BTW, great idea for a series. Looking forward to your future additions.

  3. True Story: I was watching this for the first time and my Fiance came home. "Oh that looks interesting, don't watch it without me". Thus, I haven't been able to finish it yet. I think I'm just going to watch it without her and if one day she wants to watch it again I'll be more than happy too.

    The blu-ray looks fantastic. Looking forward to more additions to this series.


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