Last night, thanks to Surry Hills Library’s DVD collection, I watched Black Narcissus (1947). To quote Screen Online:
Powell and Pressburger’s delirious melodrama is one of the most erotic films ever to emerge from British cinema, let alone in the repressed 1940s – it was released just two years after David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), with its more typically ‘British’ story of desire denied.
Starting from a controversial novel by Rumer Godden – an Englishwoman living long-term in India – Powell and Pressburger fashioned a taut melodrama of unusually fierce passions and barely contained erotic tension. Although the script never directly challenged the strict standards of the censors, it hardly needs saying that the repressed desires of nuns was not a common – or safe – subject for a British film in 1947.
Deborah Kerr, in her third film for Powell and Pressburger (following Contraband (1940) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)), was nominally the star of the film, playing the emotionally detached Sister Superior, secretly tormented by memories of lost love. But it was an extraordinary performance from the barely-known Kathleen Byron as the deranged Sister Ruth which really stood out. Byron had played an angel in A Matter of Life and Death (d. Powell, Pressburger, 1946), but there was nothing in that role which suggested that she was capable of a performance of such furious intensity.
David Farrar took the role of the agent, Dean, full of macho swagger, and the catalyst for Sister Ruth’s madness. It was the first of three parts for Powell and Pressburger, and anticipated his lusty, malevolent squire in Gone to Earth (1950). Among the supporting roles were Sabu, in his first work with Powell since Thief of Bagdad (1940), and an 18 year-old Jean Simmons, fresh from her success in Great Expectations (d. David Lean, 1946), as an native temptress.
Cinematically it is brilliant, especially given it was mostly made in England at the Pinewood Studios. See David Kehr’s essay. Contextually it is fascinating, made just as the Raj was coming to an end, a fact that some see symbolised in the retreat from the mountains at the end of the film. Otherwise, it is, let’s face it, melodrama. Still, if you like movies and have never seen it, make sure you do.
One minor point: as with many movies made at that time where “jungle noises” were called for, kookaburras do seem to have appealed for some reason! One major point: the movie does give some credence to the Orientalist/post-colonial position. It is very much a matter of perspective, but I think today we would find it unfortunate that “exotica” leads to a total blurring of Islam/Tibetan Buddhism/Hinduism in a generalised mishmash of “Other” counterpointing the nuns, who in turn are counterpointed by a barely disguised sexual vibe coming from, well, just about everything and everyone.
The look of the movie is brilliant but owes much to images like this one, so typical of the imagined Orient of an earlier European age, a place where the “normal” did not necessarily apply, seductive and magical but also disturbing and dangerous.
Having the hots for Sabu
That, I confess, was my state between the ages of 10 and 13. Not that I would have put it that way.
The real-life Sabu Dastagir was in fact an interesting character.