Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Space Oddities: BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) Film Review

Fig 1: Black Narcissus film poster.

A fascinating rendition of the original novel “Black Narcissus” (1939), written by Rumer Godden, the film “Black Narcissus” (1947) directed by the duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a post World War II emotional drama that conveys the journey of lust, jealousy, eroticism and sinfulness.

A group of nuns, who are indefinitely holy and conservative, are suddenly shrouded in seduction and temptation with the accompaniment of a handsome man. This film can be seen to also include horror nearing the ending, and such a contrast is amounted compared to the beginning.

Upon further research, the film’s title originates from the perfume that the general in the film uses. As Michael Mirasol explains: “It’s scent taken from a flower, named after a Greek mythological youth of the same name, who died of his own vanity.” (Mirasol, 2010).

Fig 2: The Sexualised Male: Mr Dean

There is a heavy contrast between the gentle nuns and the isolated structure situated high on the mountains – two worlds collide and clash, with unknown circumstances. The nuns are seemingly repressed; they have let go of their worldly ties, dedicated themselves to God and doing good, only to come to a land full of lust and temptation, thus throwing them face first into the aspects they were avoiding.

Of course, the main artery of this feature are the symbols of sex and presence of sexual tension. The audience see the enormous bell rung many times, long, protruding horns played by men, the character Mr. Dean (as seen in Fig 2) with his revealing body and handsome features; here Joseph Jon Lanthier elaborates on this: “The story teased and tempted Anglo nuns into a hornily unholy froth through the piercing clarity of the Himalayan elements and the ubiquity of Hindu fertility totems” (Lanthier, 2012). Indeed, the viewers are also presented with wall paintings of naked figures that coat an entire room, so that there isn’t a possibility to look at anything else. Being seen a few times, this emphasizes the sexual content even more. 

Fig 3: Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh

Another intriguing factor to “Black Narcissus” (1947) is the use of male objectification. The singular character, Mr Dean, is straight away shown to be a object of pleasure; some eye candy, and is almost always in high cut shorts showing off his legs, or shirtless or exposing his chest in some way; his handsome features host green glistening eyes that captivate who ever looks at him. This all adds up to the main cause of sexual frustration between the nuns. In addition to this, his flirtatious manner and attention seeking is usually seen in the female character. The roles are also reversed for the nuns – the main female characters are fully covered up, showing no skin except hands and face.
   The interesting point of male objectification comes from how throughout cinematography and film in general, the female is seen as a sex symbol, invites male attention, and is usually “something for the men”, so this change in roles is quite refreshing, and challenges the norm.

The immense contrast from the beginning of the film, which is innocent, orderly and calm, to the end that is tragic, dark and dramatic is careful unraveled as the film goes on. 

Fig 4: An example of the matte painting used

A group of five nuns decide to create a school and hospital on the site which is high on the Himalayan mountains. Upon arriving, Sister Clodagh (seen in Fig 3) speaks to Mr Dean about work, where as he is straight away playful, flirtatious and not at all serious. His charming manner does appear to have some sort of effect on Sister Clodagh (seen in Figs 5 and 6), however it has an even bigger effect on Sister Ruth, who becomes increasingly jealous of her superior. At the same time, Sister Clodagh recalls when she was in love with a young man of her past, her past lover is supposedly reminded because of the presence of Mr Dean. Michael Mirasol goes on to explain: “Ruth, who was emotionally disturbed even before joining the expedition seems to become completely unhinged once Dean shows her an act of kindness which she might have been seeking for so long” (Mirasol, 2010). Once rejected by Dean, she is shown to be almost possessed with evil, and returns to the mountains in attempt to push Clodagh of the cliffs edge, however in a climatic ending, it is Ruth who plummets to her death.

Fig 5: The change in Ruth

It can be seen that the gradual “madness” of Ruth materializes with her reddened under eyes, warm red lighting and eventually, her removal of holy garments and addition of red lipstick and a red dress. Note the theme of the colour red: this can be linked to love, lust and passion – something with Ruth is desperately longing for. Ultimately, her own demise resulted in her desperation and clouded thoughts;  extreme sexual frustration and tension.

Fig 6: Ruth removes her nun robes and applied red lipstick.

Looking at the actual surroundings and set of “Black Narcissus” (1947), the use of miniatures, highly detailed matte paintings (seen in Fig 4), production art and Technicolor all contribute to a highly immersive experience. Even with the lack of music at times, it focuses the viewers on the characters words, and when there is music, it fits well with the highly dramatic and tense scenes – loud string music blares at you and heightens the senses.

All in all, “Black Narcissus” (1947) is a film not to be missed. It sits on the brink of the end of World War II, and at this time, the world of cinema was a rich period in film history. The relief of the end of the War can be seen with the time, dedication and production art of this film. 


Lanthier, J. December 30, 2012. Black Narcissus, Slant Magazine, (Accessed on 10/11/2015) http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/black-narcissus
Mirasol, M. March 5, 2010. "Black Narcissus" Which Electrified Scorsese, rogerebert.com, (Accessed on 10/11/2015) http://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/black-narcissus-which-electrified-scorsese
Pryor, T. August 14, 1947. BLACK NARCISSUS, nytimes.com, (Accessed on 10/11/2015)

Illustration List

Fig 1: "Black Narcissus film poster." (Accessed on 10/11/2015) http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Posters/B/Poster%20-%20Black%20Narcissus_10.jpg
Fig 3: "Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh" (Accessed on 10/11/2015) http://www.cineoutsider.com/reviews/pix/b/bl/blacknarcissus06.jpg
Fig 4: "An example of the matte painting being used" (Accessed on 10/11/2015) https://40.media.tumblr.com/6eebe06d8c3510db4f6e835b57891ae1/tumblr_ng53biG9Kn1rtynt1o1_500.jpg
Fig 6: "Ruth removes her nun robes and applied red lipstick" (Accessed on 10/11/2015) http://image.glamourdaze.com/2012/09/1940s-lipstick-Kathleen-Byron-in-Black-NarcissusC.jpg

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review Manisha - good discussion around the 'role reversal' between the objectification of men and women :)
    My only suggestion would be that you order your images more logically...so for example, at the moment your matte painting example is sitting rather randomly in amongst other discussions, where it would have made more sense to have it nearer the end, where you are actually discussing the technique.
    Also, in the bibliography, you only need the year, not the month too, and that should be in brackets.

    Looking forward to reading the next one!