Monday, March 24, 2014

Blind Spot: Black Narcissus

[This post is apart of Ryan McNeil's Blind Spot Series at The Matinee. On the last Tuesday of ever month you watch and write about a movie that is considered important in the cinema lexicon, but that you've somehow missed along the way.]

I was raised Catholic and spent both my grade school and high school years at Catholic institutions. By the time I started attending school, the days of nuns being the only teachers had long since past. The few we did have didn't even wear habits, which kind of takes away the mystery of them. It's hard to be intimidated by an older woman in a cat cardigan. I longed for the days my father and aunts described in the 50s and 60s when the nuns, dressed head to toe in their black robes, meant business and weren't afraid to use a ruler on you when you stepped out of line. 

My favorite story was my aunt's encounter with a envious nun. All women used to have to cover their heads when they were in church and my aunt was so proud of a gorgeous new hat she had received. But while piously praying, her pride was knocked down a notch when her teacher kicked the hat right off her head! My aunt claims the nun was so consumed with jealousy of how cute she looked in her new headwear, that the only solution was to knock it right off her head. That's my aunts side of the story anyway. But we never think of nuns being petty or jealous in that way. It showed a different side of them that made them not as perfect as you would think. Wearing the same thing day in and day out, why wouldn't this nun have felt jealous of this little girl's fashionable accessory? Which is why the group of flawed nuns (especially the deranged Sister Ruth) in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) remain so fascinating and perhaps aren't so different from that nun that knocked off my aunt's hat. 

The film follows a group of British nuns in the Himalayas, lead by the stoic Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). She is tasked with creating a school in the Palace of Mopu situated at the top of a cliff. It once housed the mistresses of of its former owner and that sexual energy still dominates the walls. The sisters, covered in their virginal white garments seem out of place in the exotic location. The wind blows through the halls of the palace creating a wildness that would never do back in Europe. Like Mariah Carey in a music video, the wind is constantly swirling about them, their wimples floating about unable to rest. At each turn the woman are confronted with the otherworldliness of the place. The film, shot in glorious technicolor, won Oscars for its Cinematography and Art Direction. And the exotic locations were composed almost entirely on the sound stages at Pinewood Studios. It's so beautiful and strange that the women forget themselves. Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) even becomes so distracted by the place that she ends up planting various flowers in what was to have been their vegetable garden. But the buds are really just a metaphor for what really is consuming the sisters: sex!

My GOD the film is erotically charged. Starting with the presence of their caretaker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Dean in his short shorts, sandals, and feathered sunhat is just a fanny pack away from being a dad on vacation in Disney World. But apparently his masculine energy is palpable. He makes Sister Clodagh confused with her feelings for him and the whole love/hate dynamic they have going on. Their scenes are filled with sexual tension  and longing looks. It doesn't help that he soon brings the local slut to live with the nuns–Jean Simmons with a bad self tanner and a series of bejeweled nose rings that look like a lady bug has landed on her nose. She later seduces the young General (Sabu), who saves her from being whipped. She rises to her knees and the way she looks at his crotch, biting her lower lip, leaves nothing to the imagination.

But Dean's masculinity is apparently just too much for Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) to handle. Her lust for him literally drives her mad. Early in the film, the Mother Superior states that Sister Ruth is a problem and foreshadowing the film's ending tells Clodagh, "I'm afraid she'll be a problem for you, too." Girl, you don't know the half of it. 

Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth is all kinds of amazing. Watching her decent into madness is the highlight of the film and Byron is game for it all. I mean, just look at her sliding into frame, eyeing Dean up and down–taking all of him in like she would unhinge her jaw and swallow him whole. Or at least touch his manly chest hair.

That dirty old bird.

And it all builds up to the reveal of Ruth, stripped of her white garments and brandished like a brazen woman, clothed in a scarlet dress. She has renounced her vows and decided that she must be with Dean. If you couldn't tell by the way she is manically cackling, something has definitely snapped. As she applies her lipstick in the most disturbing and unsettling way possible, we see that any trace of humanity has left Ruth. She has become a zombie consumed with sexual passion and unwarranted hatred for Clodagh. Once she is rejected by Dean, her transformation becomes complete. There is a black murderous, jealous rage in her eyes and Clodagh is in her sites.

I don't want to say that the nun that kicked off my aunt's hat spiraled out of control in quite the same way that Ruth does. But it could have been worse. At least she didn't try to push my aunt off a cliff... 

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