Movies aren’t reality. They’re visual expressions of an emotional experience. The best filmmakers have known this all along, but it’s worth bringing up, as many seem to forget this crucial caveat. For too many, movies must present, literally, the source material, the experience and the characters authentically. But some stories are best told in a roundabout manner, and they require an inventive mind to bring them to fruition. For these instances, we have the imaginative and emotional works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — known collectively as The Archers — and their sensually wrought masterpiece, Black Narcissus.
Released in 1947 and based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus is set in the Palace of Mopu, located high in the Himalayan Mountains, near Darjeeling, India. There, a convent of Anglican nuns — led by Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) — try to turn an ancient brothel into a place of worship and education. Clodagh’s higher-up is skeptical that she will be able to accomplish much, and an old caretaker (May Hallatt) warns that the spirits of the palace will not submit to the sister’s will. The Old General (Sir Esmond Knight) isn’t too worried, but then again, he has seen many come and go through this palace. What’s the harm in another attempt?
But the palace will not submit. The harem who previously lived there generously adorned the walls with pornographic images — images that awaken and stir emotions deep within the young convent. This is most evident in Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), a young nun full of life and passion.
Real trouble enters when the local British colonist, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), shows up. His matinee-idol good looks, his square jaw and burly chest would be difficult for any woman to resist. For Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth, they stir up a past not long forgotten and not in the least bit fully repressed.
Black Narcissus isn’t quite a bodice ripper, but it’s close. Looking back in his autobiography, A Life in Movies, Powell wrote: “It is the most erotic film that I have ever made. It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from beginning to end.” Powell and Pressburger achieved this through a tightly controlled production — not of location, but of imagination.
Though set in India, not one frame of Black Narcissus was exposed outside of England. Indeed, the movie — save for one or two shots taken at a nearby botanical garden — was filmed at Pinewood Studios with matte paintings and backdrops supplying the scenery and giant fans providing Mopu’s ever-present wind. With no outside elements to contend with and beholden to no reality, Powell and Pressburger — and their collection of technical mavens — exercised complete and precise control of the entire production. They build their story quickly and economically, watching as these nuns buckle under the surmounting pressure until, in one of the cinema’s greatest climaxes, Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth give in. It’s pure emotion and it’s a directing tour de force, one that life-long admirer Martin Scorsese describes as, “A cross between Disney and a horror film.”
In other words: Black Narcissus is an Archers’ film. And it’s perfect.