Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Film Review - Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, 1947)

Fig 1. Black Narcissus Poster.

Black Narcissus is a film set in the Himalayas in a remote valley, where a group of nuns travel to spread western medicine and education to the local population. The film follows the nuns and their mental and physical ordeals which eventually sees one of them lose their mind. Sister Ruth is overcome by the psychological strains that the environment of Mopu Palace forces upon her, she then attempts to throw one of the other nuns from the cliff top upon which the palace stands. This attempt merely concludes with her own tragic death. She is shown throughout the film as being an outcast and a weaker member of the order, prone to emotional outbursts and not very social.

This quote from Thomas Pryor highlights the setting of the film very well ''The awesome grandeur of the setting, a fantastic old palace perched on a mountainside 8,000 feet above the floor of India but still dwarfed by the snow-capped peaks of Kanchenjunga, is stunningly reflected in Technicolor.'' (Pryor,1947). Black Narcissus' setting is such a large focal point throughout, that it needed to have strong design aspects to properly highlight things like altitude and grandeur. The film does indeed highlight these features well and it has a very strong aesthetic. The bell ringing scenes show particularly breath-taking shots of the valley and the village below and much of that would of been matte paintings.

Joseph Lanthier had this to say about the design aspects of the film ''Vast cubicles of matte paintings seem both deep enough to get lost in and flat enough to echo screams of fright and pleasure for years; prosthetic bamboo trunks smart even more intensely than real ones when tripped over.'' (Lanthier, 2012). The matte paintings were flawlessly completed, it would be very hard indeed to tell where the scene stops and the painting begins sometimes. These paintings helped bring the altitude to the scenes and also helped to scale the palace against the mountainside. The scenes that include the bell ringing have a particular strength and that could be mostly due to matte painting shown from a top down camera shot (See Fig 2 & 3).

Fig 2. Bare Bell Scene

Fig 3. Finished Bell Scene

''In the golden light of dawn Ruth stalks Clodagh to the chapel before erupting out of the Palace doors like an apparition from hell and attempting to push Clodagh over the precipice as she rings the morning bell.'' (Petrie, s.d.). This quote from a review by Duncan Petrie talks about the build up and climax of the film. The slow but steady change in sister Ruth through the film is shown through colour, it is subtle at first but eventually turns to oranges, reds and then in the climax, a dark black that makes her look demonic. This subtle use of colour is extremely effective and is a big talking point around the film. This films use of matte paintings and colour really help to boost the strength of the scenes.

Illustration List

Powell, M (1947) Figure 1. Black Narcissus Poster. http://assets.flicks.co.nz/images/movies/poster/70/70afbf2259b4449d8ae1429e054df1b1_500x735.jpg (Accessed on 11/11/14)

Powell, M (1947) Figure 2. Bare Bell Scene. https://sgtr.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/black-narcissus1_thumb.jpg?w=594&h=432 (Accessed on 25/11/14)

Powell, M (1947) Figure 3. Finished Bell Scene. http://www.davidmullenasc.com/blacknarcissus9.jpg (Accessed on 25/11/14)


Pryor, T (1947) http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF173CE261BC4C52DFBE66838C659EDE (Accessed on 24/11/14)

Lanthier, J (2012) http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/black-narcissus (Accessed on 24/11/14)

Petrie, D (s.d.) http://www.filmreference.com/Films-Bh-Bo/Black-Narcissus.html (Accessed on 25/11/14)

1 comment:

  1. Another thoughtful review Jack. It might also have been useful to talk a little about the suppressed sexual urges of the nuns, and how colour was used to portray these...