In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburgers A Matter of Life and Death, wartime England is rendered in color and heaven in austere monochrome, a reversal of The Wizard of Ozs trickery. In 1947, Powell and Pressburger were early adopters of Technicolor in Black Narcissus, a story about repressed desire among nuns who longed for crimson red.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) of the Order of the Sisters of Mary is sent to a remote village in the Himalayas to establish a monastery. Many of the sisters deal with hidden passions, including one focusing on Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an Englishman who is now dangerously unstable.
Black Narcissus, a 1940s film, is out of date in many ways, not least because of the Technicolor. Cardiff's color cinematography is outstanding and deserves an Oscar nomination (at a time when there was no separate award for black and white). The film's greatest composite shot is of the monastery bell, which is a metaphor for everything in the film and also serves as a stunning close-up.
The paintings of orgies and the naked statues, which the nuns cover with white veils that flee away in the unrelenting wind, prefigure the desires that will surface throughout the film. The palace, the mountains, and the landscape are all shades of earth tones and greens that suggest a natural order.
Sister Clodagh, who was initially protective of the group, becomes increasingly oblivious as the film progresses, becoming a symbol of an unhealthy desire to keep her desires hidden. When Ruth is on the verge of madness, framed against a window, Clodagh gives her a glass of milk that she thinks is delicious.
Black Narcissus is a departure from the more well-known melodramas of the decade, Brief Encounter and Casablanca. Both films are equally passionate, but they are executed in the mannered manner typical of the time, especially in Brief Encounter. The tale of an illicit affair, once considered as a taboo at the time, now fits perfectly into the tone and themes.
Powell and Pressburger use Technicolor to develop an intensity that might have been difficult to convey otherwise. Only Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious pushes the limits of eroticism as far as that film goes. There is no kissing in Black Narcissus, as the filmmakers concentrate on the characters' eyes as they gaze upon or fantasize about objects of desire.
When Clodagh confronts Ruth, who unexpectedly appears out of uniform wearing a stunning red dress and lipstick, she invokes her sexual obsession with Mr Dean, although the complexities of the performance aren't exactly clear. Ruth has taken a gold necklace from one of the candleholders and made it into a necklace.
Dean is the ostensible lust object in the film, and Ruth is apparently jealous of the natural attraction between him and Clodagh. He is a sappy romantic lead who is often made to look ridiculous. He sings loudly, wears an unflattering hat, and rides on a pony (a contrast to Clodagh's memories of horse-riding in England). However, in a moment of candor, Clodagh admits that it is Dean who reminds her more
As a rejected Ruth confronts Clodagh at the bell, the death drop for one of the characters would take place again in Hitchcock's Vertigo, another Technicolor lust story that directly references Black Narcissus in his gloriously tacky solo-effort, Peeping Tom. Kathleen Byrons dangerously empowered woman in red would echo through color film, not least in Carrie and Bram Stokers Dracula.
Black Narcissus is a film about personal turmoil rather than the cultural reckoning imposed by empire.
The detractors of Black Narcissus in 1947 were concerned about its sexual suggestiveness, rather than its representations. They objected the most strongly to the depiction of the nuns' inner lives in order to prevent the film from being released in the United States. Given the later scenes with Sister Ruth, Black Narcissus remains a technical marvel and a foreshadowing of a single color that would dominate cinema as a signifier of passion.