Movie Night with Urbaniak: Black Narcissus

Not Richard Roundtree.

I’d never seen Black Narcissus before, but it’s come up a number of times in conversations lately (as in “You’ve never seen Black Narcissus?!” or “Well, if you’re interested in Michael Powell, the place you should start is Black Narcissus.“).

I don’t know why I’ve put off seeing it, but for some reason I always thought it was another “hip,” updated retelling of a Greek myth a la Black Orpheus. Either that or a gritty 1970s Harlem crime thriller starring Richard Roundtree.  (“Narcissus is back, and this time — he’s black!“)

Anyway, it’s neither of those things. It’s an early Technicolor masterpiece about a bunch of nuns who try to open a convent on a mountain redoubt in the Himalaya. It’s photography was about ten years ahead of its time and its sexual tension was at least thirty.

Essentially an allegory about British colonialism, a group of uptight, sexually repressed British nuns (are there other kinds?) led by Sister Clodagh decide it’s a good idea to open a franchise in a “wild,” “simple” land where “the men are men, the women are women and the children are children.” The free, “childlike” ways of the locals and the clear mountain air conspire to drive all the nuns a little crazy as they struggle to reign in their desires and neuroses. English civilization crash-lands on the rocks of local superstition, the local prince falls in love with the local slut, and man trouble erupts in the form of local shirtless handyman Mr. Dean. Eventually the story devolves into a horror movie as one of the nuns, Sister Ruth, proves herself to be even more tightly wound than Sister Clodagh and becomes Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Deborah Kerr is measured and nuanced as Sister Clodagh and Kathleen Byron is appropriately high-strung as Sister Ruth, but otherwise the acting in the movie is about as broad and hysterical as it gets. British stage actors play Indians (talk about a director missing his own metaphor!) so big it’s as if they’re waiting for the applause to follow their most outrageous moments. Jean Simmons plays the Paris Hilton of the Himalaya with teeth-baring, hip-swiveling gusto. David Farrar should smolder and seduce as Mr. Dean, but instead he just kind of stands around and poses. As

   notes, it doesn’t help that he looks like Kevin Nealon, if Kevin Nealon underwent plastic surgery to look more like Daniel Day-Lewis.

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10 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: Black Narcissus”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    No wonder I’d never heard of this, and the screencap didn’t look familiar.

    All these years I’ve been confusing it with Black Orpheus, which I have seen.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    Coincidental side note — I just saw a movie last night where Deborah Kerr (not the one I dated, but the actress) runs off to become a nun, but it was not this movie.

    Go figure.

  3. craigjclark says:

    Ah, excellent choice! Not my favorite Michael Powell film (that would be Peeping Tom), but most impressive. (My favorite Powell & Pressburger film, incidentally, is A Matter of Life and Death.)

  4. mr_noy says:

    I first saw Black Narcissus at a University of Texas film series showcasing the films of Powell and Pressburger. Apart from Black Narcissus I also saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Peeping Tom, The Red Shoes and Powell’s solo film Peeping Tom. I would recommend any of them.

    That film series was one of the first things I did after moving to Austin so I have fond memories associated with these films, particularly Black Narcissus. The way they photographed light reflecting off the ripples of water is one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen committed to film, especially when seen on the big screen. To this day, the prince’s innocent comment about studying physics is one of my favorite jokes in any film.

  5. mcbrennan says:

    I’m a big fan of Powell and Pressburger. Their visual style, the cinematography, and as you point out, the sexual and social tension in their work really speaks to me and I hope to somehow crib a bunch of it–probably a challenge to get shots like that on a low budget, but we’ll see. I really love The Red Shoes and I Know Where I’m Going! and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

    Their work comes from such a particularly specific cultural place and time (specifically a reaction against the cultural/institutional oppression of wartime Britain and/or the death of colonial British culture) that I almost look on that acting style as its own intentional stylistic thing, like the Hartley deadpan, a self-aware commentary on the artifice of film. But honestly, I don’t think about it that much, I usually buy in to what they’re doing. The strong, complicated female characters, the overwhelming sensuality and sexual tension, and the staggering visuals, the pure cinema of the thing–a feast for the senses, I tell you.

    The Kevin Nealon guy always struck me as pretty damn hot, actually, but then again I have big crushes on Paul Giamatti and John Hodgman from the Mac ads/Daily Show, so it’s possible I may have somewhat unconventional taste.

  6. moroccomole says:

    Oh, I love this one. And I second the recommendation of I Know Where I’m Going! if you haven’t already seen it.

  7. catwalk says:

    it’s been some time, but i caught ‘black narcissus’ one weekend afternoon and was mesmerized…

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’ve only seen PEEPING TOM, THE RED SHOES and BLACK NARCISSUS and have been blown away by all three films. I think the theatricality of some of the acting comes with the territory but what Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and Kathleen Byron bring to the film is tangible. I found myself double-checking when this was made due to my surprise at how strong and tightly wound it got toward the end. A great movie in my opinion.

  9. leborcham says:

    Love ALL Powell that I’ve seen (Red Shoes, I Know Where I’m Going) but this is truly one of the most beautiful movies EVER made. Except I agree shirtless guy wasn’t as hot as he should have been — then again if I was a tightly wound repressed nun in the Himalayas, I would probably think Kevin Nealon was hot.