The powerhouse partnership of writers/directors/producers/editors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced many influential, visual lush, and emotionally raw films including The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Among some of their most famous films is Black Narcissus, the religious drama focuses on a convent of young, isolated, and self regulated nuns. Based on Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name, much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the pages of the book.
A group of sisters are dispatched unwilling to the Himalayas and tasked with opening a school and hospital for the indigenous, skeptical villagers. The chaste sisters are given an empty and decaying seraglio to convert, but far from being palatial the living quarters are sequestered high atop the mountains and surrounded by barren soils. Slowly the sisters’ beautiful surroundings begin to suffocate them as they face death, ostracization, paranoia, hunger, sexual temptation, and insanity.
Not a typical religious film, especially for the 1940’s, with its underlying themes of overbearing oppression and female repression. Black Narcissus does not fit the typical postwar family friendly mold; but it does capture the lingering American fear of fascist authoritarianism, cultural otherness, and foreign isolationism. When planning production for Colonel Blimp, Pressburger wrote actress Wendy Hiller in an attempt to talk her into signing onto the film (she was initially cast before becoming pregnant, which led her to drop out and Black Narcissus star Deborah Kerr to be signed instead). In the letter, he outlines his production company’s, Archer Productions, 5 point approach to filmmaking which served as a blueprint for all of their films to come.
“1. We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.
2. Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else's. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.
3. When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.
4. No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.
5. At any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to propman, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.”
This philosophy explains their signature fantastical take on the darkest human conditions and trials. It also is what truly separated them from the get-it-done-yesterday, sloppy, money-centric approach to movies that Hollywood had adopted between the 1930’s and mid 1950’s. Powell and Pressburger are masters at revealing the dark underbelly of what we initially find so tempting and attractive, and this achieved this no better than with Black Narcissus. Most films begin in a period of stasis before encountering conflict and ultimately finding a (usually) happy resolution. Powell and Pressburger began their films in states of happiness and possibility before whittling away at their character’s opportunities the way life often does, presenting them with difficult choices that had no real right answer. Their endings were often sullen, ambiguous, and contemplative. In Black Narcissus admiration becomes jealousy, infatuation becomes lust, indifference becomes violence, the exotic becomes the foreign, the unfamiliar becomes the enemy, and the peace becomes the isolation with death being the only real means of escape.
Black Narcissus went on to win to the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. CInematographer Jack Cardiff was the subject of Painting with Light, a documentary featuring cast and crew discussing Cardiff’s mastery of moving photography and theatrical lighting. The film has been preserved and restored. It is available on The Criterion Collection on DVD and is available in full online.