Nun's on the Run - Black Narcissus and Red Lips

Black Narcissus (1947) Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

I thought it worth mentioning that Black Narcissus is one of those truly fascinating classic films that I doubt any of you will ever get around to watching... which is a shame. I completely understand why – there are nuns on the original cover (although in an effort to trick you, you might have noticed that the recent Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray re-release sport substantially nun-reduced box art). Once you pop it in however, there are nuns in nearly every frame of the film and, perhaps more interestingly, all of the subplots that don't involve them are a little dull, overly stagey and almost take away from the power of the film.

Nun too safe
The story is straightforward enough. Deborah Kerr (nun) leads a group of other British nuns whose isolated Himalayan outpost inflames their imaginations in ways not at all in keeping with vows of chastity. This is a smartly-written, outrageously sensual psychology lesson and was, like most films directed by the great British director Michael Powell, at least 20 years ahead of its time. It's also one of the darkest, most “noirish” human dramas I can think of. There are times toward the end when it almost borders on horror. Among other things, this is a film about sexual repression, colonialism, jealousy and the lack of understanding between cultures.... fairly heady stuff for a movie from the forties.

Creepy Nun
Which isn't to say that Black Narcissus doesn't have its fair share of flaws. There are some cringe-inducing subplots that simply haven't dated well and the acting - including Kerr's - is a little suspect now and again. Much of the nuns-have-urges-too shock and controversy that accompanied the original release of the film seem almost quaint now, but the retrained sensuality of the picture is still there.

But that's not why I'd recommend you watch it. The pure pleasure associated with this film stems from the astonishing cinematography by Jack Cardiff. There's been nothing like it before or since and it remains jaw-dropping 50-plus years later. The depth, dimension and detail of the camerawork blows away anything in the digital era. From a visual perceptive, this is the reference film to end all reference films.

Nun's come undone

The new Criterion releases (both the DVD and the Blu-Ray) simply dazzle the senses in spite of a story that might seem a little dated. Highly recommended, even if you just skip to the visual highlights, just like you would with any nun-porn.

Oh.... and Sabu's in it too.



the coelacanth said...

i first saw this several years ago and while struck by the iconic imagery, i really didn't pick up on a lot of subtleties in the film. looks like i'll be revisiting the recent criterion reissue soon. although watching it on blu-ray seems ideal... hmmmm, my movie night pick is two weeks away...

La Sporgenza said...

I'm not sure it's a film with too many subtleties anyways, so you may not have missed much. It was more the cinematography I was trying to key on. Good on you for having seen it - most haven't.

btw - It's probably safer to have our blogversation in here - away from prying eyes and ears. Highly unlikely Kadas or McComb will venture inside a classic film review so we're probably safe.

So... whatcha doin?

the coelacanth said...

yeah, it was a half-joke when i said that about the subtleties. even though i was mid-20s at the time, i got that that wasn't really the intention of the film. have seen a few p&p films, though still need to watch a canterbury tale, one of my dad's (and jen reed's) favourite films. got turned onto powell as a teen renting from dundas' video buff (no joke), where i tracked down the elusive and shrouded in mystique peeping tom. haven't looked back since. kris and i are currently eating falafels.