Tuesday, 10 November 2015

"Black Narcissus" (1947) - a review

Fig 1.
“Black Narcissus” (1947) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is altogether sumptuous and barren. Focusing on a group of Nuns sent to the palace of Mopu, recently dubbed St. Faith by Sister Superior Clodagh, Black Narcissus charts their struggles in managing the palace, modernising the local population and handling their own libidinous thoughts. Very early on it is made clear in visual terms that the life of piety is at once visually bland as it is spiritually; superficially at least, a fact that is put deliberately at odds with the picturesque quality of the mountains and forested valley below. Powell “...depicts the nuns' mountain enclave as an ashen and distant; colorless as the sisterhood's singular devotion to their vocation.” (Mirasol, 2010) The desaturated and blocky appearance of the palace of Mopu can perhaps be interpreted into one of many a visual metaphor; built on the notion of rigidity; akin to the character's initial mindset, these Nuns who, through religion have sought to make their lives and by de facto, appearance, as plain as possible to avoid temptation. In fact, it is only as the story progresses that we see the true nature of Mopu and the Nuns, for as we see the flourishes of colour in the interiors of Mopu, so too do the Nuns of St. Faith, show their true colours; Doubts, breakdowns, recollection of lost love and eventually madness; everything internal is externalised within the set design.   

Fig 2.
Indeed, Powell and Pressburger use sparsity in such a way so as it is reflective of the banality of the repressive way of life chosen by the Nuns of St. Faith. What makes Black Narcissus so effective is the juxtaposition of these earlier items with the second and third acts of the film. Michael Mirasol writing for RogerEbert.com surmises it as “...This burning, fervent, internal strife, builds continuously towards the film's almost gothic climax” (Mirasol, 2010) And exactly so, as Black Narcissus takes on hues of red and blue, the red signifying the rage and sexual tension throughout the plot, blue providing solace, but rarely do we see a return to the bleached tones of the opening act, at one point Sister Ruth literally “see’s red” after having her advances rejected by Dean; more object than character. In particular the presence of the colour red is seen around Sister Ruth, until she adorns herself in it, pasting herself in red lipstick as a final renouncement of her vows to god.

Black Narcissus then, succeeds after this, not only due to the thoughtful lighting, but also due to “..The claustrophobic art direction by Alfred Junge...” that “...enforces the environment’s boundaries and brings the runaway bodily needs of the sisters into sharper focus.”  (Lanthier, 2012). The almost “lovecraftian” nature of Mopu and its sway over the sisters is made flesh via the use of Junge’s tight control over the art direction, something which at first isn’t apparent, but - as it does for the lunacy and it’s grip over the sisters - sinks in slowly over the course of the film.

Black Narcissus can only be celebrated then, for its subtle use of lighting and imagery to reinforce the mindsets of the characters and later on introducing this pervading yet intangible sense of dread over the final proceedings.
Fig 3.


Lanthier, Joseph. 'Black Narcissus | Film Review | Slant Magazine'. [online] Available at: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/black-narcissus [Accessed 9 Nov. 2015].

Mirasol, Michael. '"Black Narcissus," Which Electrified Scorsese | Far Flungers | Roger Ebert'.[online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/black-narcissus-which-electrified-scorsese [Accessed 9 Nov. 2015].


Black Narcissus Poster. [image] Available at: http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Posters/B/Poster%20-%20Black%20Narcissus_10.jpg [Accessed 9 Nov. 2015].

Ruth In Red. [image] Available at: http://celluloidoptimist.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Narcissus.jpg [Accessed 9 Nov. 2015].

Ruth Still. [image] Available at: http://filmfanatic.org/reviews/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Black-Narcissus-Horror.png [Accessed 9 Nov. 2015]

Additional reading


  1. GREAT!!! Thoughtful, insightful, creative and evidence-based! A cinematic curio elucidated with apparent ease and confidence. Good stuff, Joe :)

    1. Thank you Phil!
      I was a tad worried that I may have missed something glaringly obvious! :P

      I am looking forward to the next one :)

  2. Well-written review Joe - great stuff :)
    Just make sure that you italicise the film names too - important particularly when the film name is also a character name, otherwise you can end up with some weird sounding sentences!

    1. Thank you Jackie!
      I will remember that for next time :) I'm slowly getting there with all of the formatting and referencing, and it definitely does show when it's done right :)