Thursday, July 15, 2010

Black Narcissus: A parable of colonialism, or who's the narcissist?

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) is a classic of Technicolor cinematography. It's also a classic of colonialist ideology.

A small group of Anglican nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is sent to establish a convent in a remote Himalayan village. They are given a mountaintop palace once occupied by concubines, and plan to create a school, infirmary, chapel, and garden on its grounds. But the isolated setting, the constant wind, the obstinacy of the "natives," the erotic paintings on the walls, and the propensity of the local English agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) to wander about shirtless are soon whipping up hysteria among the nuns.

The story, based on a Rumer Godden novel, is ludicrous, especially when Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) snaps, dons a siren-red dress, lipstick and high-heeled shoes, throws herself at Mr. Dean and—spoiler alert!—tries to push Sister Clodagh off the mountain. The convent is doomed by the combined force of the villagers' indifference and the eruption of the nuns' own repressed emotions.

What's harder to stomach than the film's pop Freudianism, though, is its depiction of the Indian villagers. "Black Narcissus" is the nuns' nickname for the Young General (Sabu), the son of the village headman, who dresses in colorful finery and attends the children's classes in English, French and typing (very useful skills in a remote Himalayan village). When the "natives" are not being shown as childlike, comically vain imitators of the English, they are shown as inscrutable, dangerously sexual, or ominously threatening.

So it should come as no surprise that the filmmakers couldn't even be bothered to get the details of the Indians' culture right. I'm no expert, but when on several occasions we hear the drums of the villagers, their rhythms sound more like Skull Island (from King Kong (1933)) than Himalayan Indian. The clothes look like a mix of regional Indian styles with a heavy overlay of film-studio fantasy. And as 17-year-old Kanchi, a young Jean Simmons—in obvious brownface—is asked to perform hilariously inept "Indian" dance moves.

It could be that there's a satirical tone that I'm just missing. The shots of Sister Ruth in her mad frenzy verge on camp:

But I don't think the filmmakers intend any satire. The music cues us when a scene is meant to be lighthearted (most of those involve May Hallatt, who plays the caretaker Angu Ayah without brownface and with a broad Cockney accent). The gorgeous cinematography, the somber tone and the lingering closeups of a conflicted Deborah Kerr give the rest of the film a sheen of high seriousness. Our perspective remains almost entirely on the mountaintop with the nuns, and it is they with whom we are invited to sympathize. I think we are meant to see the nuns as well-meaning but naïve, attempting to do good work in a place where the climate is unsuitable and the ignorant, superstitious people are stubbornly unreceptive.

But this is classic colonialist ideology, liberal version, as memorably described by Noam Chomsky (in "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship," from American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon, 1967)) and Edward Said (in Orientalism (Vintage, 1979)). To make the suggestion the nuns are serving the British imperial project and that the Indians have their own subjectivity requires reading the film against the grain.

The film's elegiac final images, where the monsoon rains begin to fall as the nuns leave the village, take on a different meaning when you note the date of the movie's release. 1947, of course, was the year that the entire British imperial project in India was abruptly abandoned. That self-regarding sense of melancholy at the end of Black Narcissus ignores, as does the rest of the film, the experience of the Indians themselves. And so it functions as a sort of parable about the loss of the Raj—only in real life the self-concern of the British turned out to have deadly consequences for their former subjects, a legacy of displacement and violent conflict that continues today. It prompts me to ask: Who are the narcissists here?


  1. "it functions as a sort of parable about the loss of the Raj"

    That's an interesting way to look at a rather annoying film! I remember seeing it long ago, when I'd first discovered TCM and the world of vintage Hollywood films. Deborah Kerr was a favorite of sorts, back then, but my Kerr-love never survived this film. She was so full of the irritating Raj superiority and self-righteousness, that I've never watched her onscreen again, without remembering that!

  2. Bollyviewer, it's interesting how our view of an actor can be colored by one of their characters. Kerr is lovely, but Sister Clodagh is amazingly unsympathetic: peremptory towards the Indian villagers, impatient and short-tempered towards the other nuns.

    We decided to watch Black Narcissus after seeing Kerr in An Affair to Remember (1957). I'm glad we didn't see Black Narcissus first, or we might never have wanted to see Affair to Remember.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Well, this wasn't her only "good British woman" role! She plays a very proud English governess in The King and I, and another very British character in King Solomon's Mines. Neither of them are obnoxious like Sister Clodagh, but they all smell of the Raj arrogance! After those, I've tended to identify her with the kind of British characters I don't very much care for, even though I have seen and liked her in other sort of films, particularly in An Affair To Remember.

  4. Bollyviewer, I wonder whether that "Raj arrogance" looked different to British and American audiences in the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Dean, the agent in Black Narcissus, is also very arrogant and peremptory, and is constantly ordering the villagers about. And yet he and Sister Clodagh form an emotional bond which, if it isn't quite love, gets pretty close (Sister Ruth isn't entirely wrong when she sees Sister Clodagh as a romantic rival). And their developing relationship is really the center of the film; it's what prompts Sister Clodagh to reveal the unhappy love affair that was the reason she joined the order.

    So my guess is that what we see as an almost shocking level of arrogance and insensitivity wasn't seen that way by the filmmakers. Which, of course, makes the film even more resonant as a microcosm of British attitudes and actions at the end of the Raj.

    Thanks for the warning about some of Kerr's other films. We'll stick to ones where she doesn't have to deal with anyone whose skin is less pale than hers (Cary Grant doesn't count!).

  5. You know the first time I saw this movie, I had no idea what the hell was going on other than it made me laugh a great deal. Over the years though, I've come to see it in a kinder light -

    I took the nuns as a metaphor for the colonialists with their unsuitable clothes; their European, sternly theological morality; their desire to convert warring with their need to keep to themselves and preserve their society in this strange and unsettling new world; the fact that they're sent to be the representatives of the Church to this region, but are housed discreetly far away in the former maharajah's zenana; their inability to relate or converse even as the success of their whole enterprise depends on converting souls...

    There's also a brief shading of gender politics - Farrar goes "native" much to the disapproval of his fellow white people but still manages to move in both circles with some ease because he is a man. When Sister Ruth is powerfully affected by her environment, however, and decides to take control of her life, she is punished for it with madness.

    Of course, I still don't know if this was what they meant to do with the movie, but it's a reading that appeals to me nevertheless. :)

  6. Amrita, I too wondered whether this film is really meant as a critique of colonialism, but ultimately decided that I didn't think so. As I write in the post, the viewer's perspective and sympathies remain with the British characters, and the villagers (apart from the ones played by British actors) are unknown, unknowable, and vaguely menacing. Mr. Dean may have "gone native," but he still orders his men about with an arrogant sense of entitlement.

    Reading Black Narcissus as a critique of colonialism would certainly make it somewhat more palatable, but only somewhat. "Let's leave because we're not suited to this place and they don't want us here"--the most generous interpretation of the film's politics--avoids the acknowledgment that the British position in India had been maintained by armed force, and that after centuries of extracting India's wealth the British had both moral and financial obligations towards the people they were leaving behind.

    So if the film was meant as a critique of colonialism, I don't think the filmmakers themselves truly grasped all the implications of their parable.

    Many thanks for your comment!

  7. This movie has exquisite art direction and stunning cinematography. And, yes it moves into the realm of melodrama. And, as Louis Rubin says about the craft of writing, the author has one objective, which is not always the same as the objective of the writer's unconscious. The same may be said about film. If you want a less uptight character for DK, see The Night of the Iguana.

  8. High melodrama - but had me hooked. Everyone was a stereotype. I look upon it as a dark soap opera but was happy to visit this site to find out the ending - as my dog dragged me away for a walk 20 minutes before the ending! (think the political interpretations were not meant by producer/director 'tho they may well be valid.)

  9. Anonymi, you may be right that the film's depiction of the politics of the Raj are not wholly intended by its creators. And yet that doesn't make the political reading any less resonant—if anything, it makes it more so.

    "Dark soap opera" is an excellent description—I wish I'd thought of it.

    Thanks for your comments!

  10. I think that the film is an immanent critique of colonial ideology, rather than a mere symptom of it. The point of the film is PRECISELY that the British imperial project was a narcissistic one: the characters fled their lives, looking for escape in the colony, hoping to build a new, ideal way of life, only to be confronted with the same old problems they carry in them. The Otherness of the colony only serves as a mirror for the narcissism of the colonizer. This occurs in two registers: libidinal and political. Libidinally, the nuns are unable to combat the return of their repressed sexual desires. Politically, they have run away to a society they have already contaminated: it is run by a British-educated, culturally pseudo-Westernized, patriachal, affluent ruling class (personified the Cambridge-educated Young General, with his British cologne and enthusiasm for European language and religion). The mystical holy man on the mountain, who ostensibly seems like an image of native authenticity, turns out to be a former general who turned his back on his life, his fortune, and his considerable list of honors from the British Empire. His silence is key: although the film sets up our expectations that he will break his silence at a key point, when the moment finally comes (the nuns come to him to ask him if he's seen where Sister Ruth escaped to), he remains silent, indifferent to the problems of the dissolving British outpost. His silence signfies REAL otherness: indifferent, separate, autonomous. In the film, 'Black Narcissus' refers to the name of a cheap cologne from a sailor's shop in London that the Young General bought so that he smells different from the 'common' people. The implicit is that that is what the colonies are for the white man: a cheap cologne to make him feel special.

    Now, I'm not saying that this is a radically anti-colonial film. It's politics are circumscribed within it's British point of view, and its aesthetic strategies reflect the ideological limits of its day. The author of the original blog post is right that the locals are never dignified with real subjectivity and that, with the exception of Sabu, they are all played by whites. (Although the casting of Sabu, whose career consisted of playing the token Other in British colonial-themed films, as a sexually opportunistic member of the collaborationist ruling class does seem to have a level of implicit commentary about racial tokenism in the film industry.) But I do think that it is a film that is skeptical of colonialism and of the Orientalist imagination even as it makes use of them.

  11. pH, many thanks for your thoughtful and eloquent comment. However, I have to respectfully disagree that Black Narcissus functions as a critique of colonialist ideology. To take the "holy man" as an example: if this is the film's image of Indian autonomy, it's an image of impoverishment and indifference. In the character's inscrutability, the film trades (in my view) on stereotypes of the mystic East. That this character was once integrated into the British colonial system is more evidence that from the point of view of the filmmakers, appearances are deceptive: deep down, all Indians are ultimately alien and unknowable.

    It's now been a while since I've seen Black Narcissus, but as I recall where the film expresses skepticism of the British imperial project, it's mainly of two intertwined varieties: first, that the "natives" are recalcitrant and ungrateful—in essence, not worthy of our efforts on their behalf; and second, that colonialism is bad—for the colonizers. This is the connection I was making to Chomsky's "Objectivity and LIberal Scholarship," which points out that liberal criticism of the US involvement in Vietnam was usually framed in similar terms.

    As I wrote above in response to Amrita's comment, "'Let's leave because we're not suited to this place and they don't want us here'—the most generous interpretation of the film's politics—avoids the acknowledgment that the British position in India had been maintained by armed force, and that after centuries of extracting India's wealth the British had both moral and financial obligations towards the people they were leaving behind."