>Black Narcissus: the Colours of Desire

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Updated October 28, 2010
Image from Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)

[Black Narcissus]’s trauma-tale is inseparable from the doomed project [of Imperialism]: it is predicated on the vertiginous nature of culture shock. The lofty palace-convent perched on the edge of a mountain precipice […] seems a visual metonym. Sister Clodagh may want to heal and enlighten “a primitive people”, but, when she looks up and then looks down from the bell tower, she is completely lost. Powell and Pressburger have transposed the ‘edge of the world’ from Foula at the tip of the Shetlands in Powell’s 1937 Scottish picture (The Edge of the World) to India’s border with the high Himalayas; from the edge of the Roman Empire to the edge of the British Empire. The former, of course, was long gone; the latter was about to expire. The end of empire is literally vertiginous, its trauma doubly embedded, or embodied, in the figures of Clodagh and sickly Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Ruth cannot hack the chasm of culture that confronts her and wants out; Clodagh, disillusioned after a romance in Ireland has ended when her boyfriend leaves for America without her, seeks solace in the Order. Flashback shows us the rural idyll of Irish sweethearts fishing and riding amidst fields and hills of emerald Technicolor, the flame-haired Clodagh slim, free-spirited and ravishing, like a figure from a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The long auburn hair now concealed under the all-embracing convent habit is never to reappear. As the fragile Order starts to crumble after the unfortunate death of a local child, the febrile Sister Ruth sheds her habit to reappear in scarlet lipstick and a lush crimson dress; for the shocked Clodagh, perhaps a melodramatic return of the repressed – the erotic red of the painted lips matched by the sensual velvet that highlights the shape of the female figure rather than burying it under a mountain of white cloth. [John Orr, ‘The Trauma Film and British Romantic Cinema 1940-1960’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 51, 2009]

Filled with the joys of Open Access Week 2010, Film Studies For Free brings you a small but perfectly formed ‘study of a single film’ resource: a little list of openly accessible online articles on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 film Black Narcissus.

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