Forshadowings: ‘No Place for a Nunnery’: the Powell and Pressburger’s Sublime "Black Narcissus"

On asking my tutorial group ‘what makes Wuthering Heights a Gothic novel’, I rediscovered just how much the popular conception of the Gothic is rooted in aesthetics. Ghosts were mentioned, someone touched on morality – but the dead giveaway, the ultimate indicator of Gothicness, was the setting. As a Gothic scholar, and one who is principally interested in its 20th century manifestations, I often forget just how recognizable the original incarnations of the genre are by their gloomy landscapes, supernatural chills, and labyrinthine castles. The Gothic I deal in generally tends towards a far more quotidian setting. Perhaps one exception to this general rule, however, is my prevailing obsession for the past three years with Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 film, Black Narcissus.

Adapted from a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus follows a group of Anglican nuns who are sent to establish a new convent in an abandoned harem on a precipice in the Himalayas. Doomed from the start, the sisters are increasingly plagued by memories from their pasts and their newly appointed Superior, Sister Clodagh, quickly begins to lose control of her order – particularly when confronted with the increasing madness of Sister Ruth. Dominated by themes of paranoia, sexual jealousy, madness, and transgression, it is not difficult to trace the strains of Gothic melodrama that permeate Black Narcissus. But if crumbling piles and their bleak surroundings are so definitive of the genre, the bright and airy set pieces that characterize this film (and the novel it is based on) create an interesting challenge to the common conception of the Gothic landscape.

“The hills are alive with the sound of… uh oh…”

Yes, Black Narcissus does have an abandoned palace in an exotic location, populated with nuns on the brink of madness (another Gothic favourite). However, one of the most memorable qualities of the Powell and Pressburger film is just how bright everything seems. Perhaps this is the most surprising thing about it, given how darkly Gothic is subject matter is. The Palace and its exotic environs are suffused with brightness, emphasised even more by Technicolour cinematography, and permeated by the cold winds from the mountains which blow through it. With whitewashed walls and open, airy interiors, the setting seems to consistently be at odds with the predominant image of the Gothic locale as a site of thunderstorms and dark, claustrophobic passageways.

Instead, I would argue that the setting of Black Narcissus and the pervasive sense of fear that the film grapples with is connected more closely with a different facet of the Gothic genre and its origins in the Romantic period – the experience of the sublime. The sublime in nature is akin to the sensation of terror in the Gothic novel – it is a mixture of fear and awe; a simultaneous drawing towards and pulling back of the beholder. The mountains which surround the fateful convent of St Faith’s in Black Narcissus are a prime example of the natural sublime and the distress that this exposure to the elements causes the nuns is, arguably, the primary cause for the turmoil that ensues. ‘I couldn’t stop the wind from blowing, and the air from being as clear as crystal, and I couldn’t hide the mountain’, the hitherto admirably stoic Sister Clodagh wails to Mr Dean as everything she has worked for begins to slip from her grasp. Her desire but inability to control that which is, by its very nature, uncontrollable represents the beginning of the end for the Sisters. 

Creepy convent and/or a lair for James Bond villains
But more than this, the setting beyond the convent’s boundaries also operates as a means of bringing to the surface long repressed memories and illicit desires. As Mr Dean says, “There is something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated”. Although this is perhaps more easily recognisable in Godden’s novel, traces remain in the film that link the sublime landscape to the amplification of the nuns’ defining characteristics. While the novel discusses this in a more subtle manner, the adaptation goes straight for a post-war raw nerve and is chiefly concerned with anxieties over the transgressive, over-sexed female. Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks and Sister Ruth’s final descent into madness bring this subject to the forefront of the film. Ruth may be problematic before her arrival at Mopu, but the exaggerating effects and maddening sublimity of the mountains crystallize her repressed desires and cause them to burst forth in a one of the most memorable breakdowns in British cinema. It is after this final crescendo into insanity in the last fifteen minutes of the film, that the setting suddenly takes a turn for the Gothic, plunging the bright convent into darkness, the camerawork creating a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere of inescapable surveillance – but to say much more would spoil the excitement of these final fleeting moments…

But, for the most part, Black Narcissus may not take place on a dark and stormy night, or in a haunted castle, yet this is not to say its setting is any less important to its Gothic credentials. In fact, the psychological strain of being so closely and relentlessly confronted with the sublime takes its toll becomes a catalyst for the hysteria that ensues, bringing the darkness and instability within the characters’ own psyches into sharp contrast with the immovable mountains beyond.

Lucy Hall will be guest moderating Sheffield Gothic Reading Group on October 7th, where we will be screening “Black Narcissus.” On the rare occasion she is not thinking about crazy nuns, Lucy is a PhD candidate from the University of St Andrews currently working on tracing Gothic influences in Second World War and Post-War British culture. Follow her on Twitter @LucyH_15