There is no denying that Powell and Pressburger’s classic feature Black Narcissus is seeping in underlying sexuality. Beneath the tale of a Convent struggling to cope in an isolated Himalayan community lies themes of repressed desire, controlled female sexuality and the power of primal instinct. Simmering with eroticism and visually stunning to watch, the film is a nuanced portrait on the power of human sexuality and it’s pressure within confined spaces.
Whilst the themes are prevalent in the character and storyline, the picture’s set design and cinematography heighten the subconscious. The run down palace in which the Convent set up their new school and dispensary is a blank canvas amidst a beautiful strange landscape, a bricks and mortar parallel to the virginal Nuns surrounded by an exotic unknown village brimming with experience. Just as the building eventually undergoes a transition from abandoned palace to busy school, so do the women of the Convent slowly become influenced by the building’s past as the home of the King’s women. An environment full of oestrogen, the physical presence of the two lead male characters builds more tension amongst the group of women then they could ever have imagined, their voluntary challenge to love and devote their life to one man, Christ, threatened by the natural human instinct they choose to try to suppress. It doesn’t matter how many curtains they cover the walls of the palace with, the sexual drawings of the past King’s wives and sexual positions of the karma sutra that they will never experience have permeated the skin of the Sisters like the ghost of a haunted house.
Take Sister Ruth. ‘Unwell’ when she arrives at the palace, her illness only gets worse the longer she stays, her sexual awakening overtaking her vows. Sick with passion, Sister Ruth is a transformation to watch, going from a sickly virgin to woman desperately ill with desire. I have never seen such acting before or since in a film such as Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth. Her eyes display every emotion across the sexual scale; arousal, longing, jealousy. Her sexual breakdown and embracement against Sister Clodagh’s (Deborah Kerr) repressed sexuality and emotional sadness is a joy to watch. The extremities of the two female ideals (the virgin and the whore dichotomy) played out with heated intensity. Just how difficult is it to deny a feeling so natural and real and try to replace it with a cause based solely on a belief? Clearly the struggle is a great one, Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks showing a man she was in love with and to marry demonstrate a strong battle to repress that matches Sister Ruth’s battle against faith in full force.
The entrance of village girl Kanchi (June Simmons) also heightens sexual tension amongst the women, for here is a girl much younger than them who appears to be knowledgable in her sexuality just as the Nun’s are knowledgable in their Christian faith. She knows how to subtlely show off her wares, slowly infiltrating not only the mind of the Prince who eventually falls in love with but also Sister Ruth whose sexual immaturity finds her advances being rejected. Kanchi, with her colourful sari’s, flowers in her hair and facial piercings, slowly rubs off onto the Sisters, their robes eventually looking more off-white, occasionally stained with blood (a visual metaphor for menstruation and the awakening of their womanhood) and eventually the application of make up (the scarlet red of lipstick perfectly clashing against the paper-white skin of Sister Ruth like a warning sign).
Ultimately, the film shows the struggle to deny something that’s constantly there. Just like the prevalent winds of the mountainous village, so does female sexuality haunt the occupants of the Convent, the most testing lesson that their faith could ever thrust upon them. Whether it be the sensuality that natures provides, the physical attraction of a prime male or the dangerous feelings the Sisters feel when they stand close to the edge of the mountain ringing the palace bell (the closest pictorial metaphor to an orgasm that the Nuns get, the wide-eyed expression looking down the mountain to the caverns below, heart pumping whilst continuing to tug away at the ropes to ring the schools bell), sexuality is a dark abyss that is easy to fall into. It doesn’t matter how much the Convent try to veil the problem, just as Dean’s attraction to the women is veiled behind a mask of dishonest denial, the feelings are so inescapable that they have to leave the village completely. Escapable? Perhaps. Unforgettable? No chance.