From matte paintings to repressed sexual desires (with a little terrible coffee and attempted murder in between), Ashley and I poke fun at each other about our differences on Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947).
Peter: I didn’t even check to see if you wrote a review of Black Narcissus on Letterboxd, because I was already flummoxed by your 2-2.5 star rating. This is a movie that completely blew me away the first time I saw it, and have seen it a number of times since; six times just in the last year. The Criterion disc was almost an instantaneous buy. In short, I love this movie. From the story to Jack Cardiff’s amazing work, there is nothing that I don’t love about it. So tell me why you’re wrong.
Ashley: Well, it blew me away too, but in a completely different way. I did not write a review because it was one of those films I couldn’t be bothered with to take more time and construct something, though I should have done a shorter piece on it. Anyway, it comes off, to me, as one of those films that is style over substance and those rarely work for me. In many ways, such as the swooping landscape photography and the way the people were filmed it brought to mind The Revenant which was another bust for me. I had a difficult time engaging with the narrative and the characters were off-putting and I had a hard time connecting with them which was probably the biggest issue I faced.
Peter: There’s a lot to unpack there! First of all, I think we can agree on The Revenant; although I liked the movie, I only liked it. The photography was astounding, but that was about it. We’re digressing, though. With Black Narcissus, the photography (and the matte paintings) are truly phenomenal, but I also think they help tell the story. Being on the edge of the world, removed from so many things…and left to your own devices. Sisters Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and Ruth (Kathleen Byron) are clearly flawed in their faith. Adding Mr. Dean (David Farrar) to the mix as the temptation, pushes each of them over the proverbial, and literal, cliff. Actually seeing the precarious position they occupy physically is a great tandem to the precarious position they occupy psychologically.
Ashley: It’s nice to highlight that spot of agreement!
The photography, especially the matte paintings, had the opposite impact on me. I felt hemmed-in and claustrophobic which I understand was part of the design, but it made me focus more on the story, and I view the two (photography and story) separate. They didn’t enhance the narrative for me at all. I do appreciate how you point out that the photography illustrates their psychological states. For me though, the photography is all that illustrates their emotional status and that was difficult for me to engage with. The acting was strong, and I believe illustrated what the filmmakers were going for, but I did not connect with it at all. There was nothing compelling to me about either of them to care what happened.
Peter: One scene that gets my buy-in (although there are few that don’t), is the one when Clodagh is singing. She starts to reflect back on her life before becoming a nun, and the time she and her fiance were singing the same hymn. She thinks fondly of worldly things; she hasn’t completely given herself over to God. This is one reason why she’s so angry with Dean (brilliantly played by Farrar); he’s another reminder of the outside. More than that, he’s a temptation from the outside. Sister Ruth is also tempted by Dean, so we then see this weird love triangle develop.
Another example is Clodagh accusing Ruth of being obsessed with Dean, which is exactly what Clodagh is…and Ruth recognizes this. In her conversation with Ruth, Clodagh is trying to convince Ruth of Dean’s toxicity, but she’s also trying to convince herself. Except she (Clodagh) doesn’t believe a word of it. She knows Ruth is attractive and a rival.
There’s also a scene with Clodagh and Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) when Philippa feels she needs to leave the Order and St. Faith because she knows she can’t give herself completely. Clodagh refuses to approve the transfer because she knows that she, too, should leave, and leave for far “worse” things than because she can’t handle the harshness of St. Faith.
Ashley: Your first example is powerful, and a scene that stuck out to me, as well. Those were few and far between, however. Those moments when real human engagement and emotions were obvious would have better suited the story had they not been so rare.
The emotions were always repressed, which is understandable. I wish there were at least a few instances, however, where they were more pronounced. Those elements alone would have gotten to anyone and yet they always seemed far too composed. Add to that what should have been a crisis of faith and purpose and I expected the facade to come apart at the seams at some point. I’ve thought about my difficulty to engage with these characters a lot, and I think that was my biggest stumbling block. I remember the first time watching it waiting for that moment where it would all be too much and there would be some pronounced visible conflict between them. I would think there would be some attempt at sisterhood and attempting to deal with their conflicting feelings together.
Peter: So you didn’t feel that Ruth’s attempted murder of Clodagh was things coming apart at the seams or attempting to deal with their conflicting feelings?
Ashley: No, that was an attempt to eradicate the problem, as I saw it anyway. I was hoping for something substantial to lead up to that. I had a hard time buying that they wouldn’t ever attempt to work through their feelings together. I’ve spent a lot of time in convents, and not even secluded ones, and the sisters seem to talk about everything, especially any difficulties of conscience, that lack of community between them was tough to accept, for me.
Peter: I was joking, but you make good points. However, not having spent any time in convents, it’s hard for me to judge. I will say, though, that I’m not sure Powell and Pressburger were really going for the authenticity of a convent. The conflicts were the story.
Were there any aspects of the film that you did enjoy?, he asked with no snark intended.
Ashley: Ha, I love a chance to prove how poorly I read sarcasm. You’re right, I’m sure Powell and Pressburger weren’t going for the most accurate representation of a convent. A bit more emphasis on the breakdown between the sisters would have aided the story, though. Anytime an interpersonal relationship breaks down there are some signs and usually some tug of war before it actually disintegrates. Missing out on those cues made it tough for me to engage. Obviously though, I’m in the minority on this if only to judge by the positive response of my #NowWatching tweet.
I enjoyed when the film ended. The sound design was also a plus, though.
Peter: I got you through the heart on the Zazie discussion, and you just got me now. That hurts. Bad. So, not even the small attempt at humor with Sister Briony’s terrible coffee, or the erotic way Sister Ruth rings that bell got you? I’m crushed. CRUSHED!
Ashley: The coffee was a nice bit because it inspired me to think of David Lynch, but other than that I’m going to have to say that my favorite part was the end credits. Though I do feel bad that I’m crushing your spirits.
Peter: You have flung me off the cliff of St. Faith, Ashley.
Ashley: “That was for the French New Wave” I said as I began to descend the mountain.
For more movie opinions, follow Ashley on Twitter @oOoOoBarracuda, and check out her Letterboxd page, too. You can find me on Twitter @PeterPutzel, Letterboxd, and right here in the Back Row, Center Seat. See you next time!