Tuesday, 10 November 2015

SPACE ODDITIES: Black Narcissus (1947)

Fig.1. 'Black Narcissus' Poster

Directors, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger took it upon themselves to create a film filled with sexual connotations. 'Black Narcisssus' (1947) is a closet full of subliminal messages to the viewer, it's set design contrasts intricate structures with beautiful matte paintings and the development of its religious characters, like a 40's version of a Marvin Gaye music video, these nuns are in need of some sexual healing. 
Fig.2. Film Still
Stanley Kubrick's, 'The Shining' (1980) seems to share this sense of repression within its story through both set design and character.

'The grass was supposedly greener back in the golden, flapper age of  The overlook and it's time-warped sense of place.'  (Scovell, 2014)

Just like in 'Black Narcissus' We are welcomed to the story via an organic set, driving through the mountains high above civilisation as the characters journey towards the hotel. Maybe it's this sense of reclusiveness and separation from the rest of the world that helps the character to let of of their routine, not having to abide by social conventions and letting their emotions run free. 'A time warped sense of place', it's as if this new setting is so distant from everything else that it is in a world of it's own, still stuck in it's old ways.  Within 'Black Narcissus' what was once a brothel is now being forced to change to a place of holiness and worship but is reluctant to do so. The setting, specifically the palace itself becomes its own character. The nuns try their very best to cover up its past with the use of religious imagery and objects, but the underlining factor of what it used to be is imprinted within the structures DNA and of the people that live within its proximity.
Throughout 'The Shining' we see Jack Nicholson's character, Jack, slowly become overwhelmed by a repressed anger, it seems as if this emotional imbalance has been at the back of his mind for a while, just like the nuns in 'Black Narcissus', after entering new surrounding it triggers his bad side, his inner Mr Hyde so to speak. Just like Mr Hyde, the characters in both 'The Shining' and 'Black Narcissus' change in appearance. Jack becomes a hunched over, menacing figure, his angular eyebrows and piercing eyes seek out targets as sweat soaks through his hair. In comparison, Ruth becomes a theatrically gothic version of herself, pale faced like Edward Scissorhands, her elegant figure is dressed in black clothing, with eyes that look as if they haven't slept in days.

Fig.3. [Film Still

Throughout the first half of the film, we are shown a bright and organic set. Lavish greens and blues grace the grounds that the characters perform upon. A symbol of the nuns purity to the world. 
This changes when the superfluity of nuns are invited to what was once a place of sex and passion, a brothel. 
Although the backdrop is filled with beauty and the structures perched upon the shaft of the tall mountainside this area holds within it's sexual past. Paintings of erotic symbolism plaster the walls, a visual assault of sexual provocation and allure. 

This is where the story begins to unfold. The group of nuns are trapped within this historically sexual paradise.  Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron,  is instantly effected by her surroundings. Dean, the leading male is objectified at times you fell as if he is the only man within the story until smaller supporting roles are thrown into this potion of repression a lust.

'Ruth, who was emotionally disturbed even before joining the expedition seems to become completely unhinged once Dean shows her and act of kindness which she might have been seeking for so long.' (Mirasol, 2010)

As the story progresses Ruth begins to show characteristics un like any body else in the film. The rest of her sisters showcase a bland, yet pure aesthetic. In their white, angelic gowns they hold back their desires and lock away the emotions that they all feel deep down, a feeling of love and passion. However Ruth drops her guard after this encounter with Dean. This acts as a catalyst to her downfall.

Fig.4. Film Still

Overwhelmed by her sexual desires, Ruth unleashes her tensions upon other characters, angered and full of a desire she wishes to release this tension and move on with her life. 
Throughout many of these scenes the colour red pollutes the set and characters. It caresses objects within shots and the bodies of characters. It's like this sexual desire has become a physical being, grasping at the things it wants most, in this case its Ruth who becomes this physical being a creature moulded by sexual tension, bounded by religious repression. 

'Although Black Narcissus can be seen as a hybrid of genres- from colonial or religious satire to melodramatic art film and noir thriller - for the sake of this analysis, it might best be constructed as a 'dark fairy tale'; as borrowing the fantastical, oneiric qualities of a remote enchanted world - as evidenced by Mopu Palace's mythical illustration in a book at the opening.' (Bagatavicius, 2012)

Indeed it is a fairy tale, a fairy tale that tells the story of a group of god worshipping, pure beings who are new to the environment that they are invited to, only for one to be enchanted by a powerful magic-like creature that is Ruth's sexual allure towards Dean. She is overcome with emotions, emotions that inevitably lead her to her doom. 


Bagatavicius, A. (2012) 'Bloodcurdling holiness in Black Narcisuss' At:http://offscreen.com/view/holiness_in_black_narcissus Accessed on: 10-11-2015

Mirasol, M. (2010) 'Black Narcissus' At: http://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/black-narcissus-which-electrified-scorsese Accessed on: 10-11-2015

Scovell, A. (2014) 'The Unleashing of Repressed Eroticism in Black Narcissus (1947) and The Shining (1980)' At: http://celluloidwickerman.com/2014/08/18/the-unleashing-of-repressed-eroticism-in-black-narcissus-1947-and-the-shining-1980/


Figure 1. 'Black Narcissus' [Film Poster] At: http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Posters/B/Poster%20-%20Black%20Narcissus_10.jpg Accessed on: 10-11-2015

Figure 2. [Film Still] At: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-c6Y3tZF3KHY/U2J-CZW4q2I/AAAAAAAACXo/ed9jw2XgHNY/s1600/BlackNarcissus4.jpg Accessed on: 10-11-2015

Figure 3. [Film Still] At: https://classicflix.com/userfiles/BlackNarcissus3.1407352815.jpg 
Accessed on: 10-11-2015

Figure 4. [Film Still] At: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Xxe9Rc1Qhe0/UatI1XQdxaI/AAAAAAAAUrk/Si1zphuap_g/s1600/protectedimage.php.jpg  Accessed on: 11-11-2015


  1. *The grass was supposedly greener back in the golden, flapper age of The overlook and it's time-warped sense of place.*

    Tom - The Overlook is the hotel in The Shining... not sure what this quote is doing in here, not least because it's referring to the golden age of the flappers - which were women in the 1920s... There's a level of 'non-understanding' and disconnection about this choice of quote which suggests you're not fully in control of what you want to say, or why...

  2. Yes, Tom... The review that this random quote comes from is actually quite useful, if you are discussing and comparing sexual repression in this film in relation to others :) But if you don't mention the comparison, it doesn't work... it always pays to re-read before you post, to make sure everything makes sense.