Features and Columns · Movies

Something in the Air: The Dangerous Beauty of ‘Black Narcissus’

Not with a bang, but with a wimple, as it were.
Black Narcissus movie
General Film Distributors
By  · Published on November 27th, 2020

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video about the beauty and historical importance of the 1947 film Black Narcissus.

There’s a moment in the third act of Black Narcissus when the charming civil servant Mr. Dean (David Farrar) attempts to comfort Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who feels as though she’s losing control of both her convent and herself. Nuns are leaving, a child has died, and for the first time in years, Sister Clodagh’s past has returned to mock and tempt her. Mr. Dean leans in close (too close) and tries to put things in perspective: “I told you it was no place to put a nunnery. There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated. Don’t you understand?”

How easy to blame the climate when it’s rendered as dramatically as this. How could these nuns contend with W. Percy Day‘s matte paintings that re-imagine mountains as monoliths and cliff sides as the edge of the world? How could they defend themselves from the otherworldly aspect of Technicolor? For all its slow-simmering psychodrama, the cinematic gait of Black Narcissus is indeed an exaggerated one. And certainly no place for a convent.

The 1947 film—written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—concerns five Anglican nuns sent to establish a convent in a remote corner of the Himalayas. Steadily the harsh climate, unfamiliar culture, and encroaching cabin fever (cloister fever?) take their toll…with tragic results.

With a celebratory spirit, the video essay below unpacks what is undoubtedly Powell and Pressburger’s darkest film. The essay contextualizes the directors’ partnership and shared obsessions, many of which crept into the thematic landscape of Black Narcissus.

Watch “1947: Black Narcissus – Truth, Beauty, and the Partnership of Powell and Pressburger”:

Who made this?

This video is by One Hundred Years of Cinema, a video essay channel producing thoughtful deep dives on just that: a century of cinema. Each video in the series examines a different film from a different year, from the early experiments of the silent era to the tentpole franchises of today. You can subscribe to their YouTube channel here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).