Sequence Analysis: Black Narcissus
“The Black Narcissus” is a British film from 1974, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and based on the same-named novel by Rumer Godden. The aim of this essay is a detailed analysis of a sequence close to the end of the film. It consists of roughly five scenes: the first scene shows natives drumming in the jungle. In the next scene the spectator is transferred to the hallways of the Convent, where Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) searches for Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). The third scene shows the occurrences between those two in Sister Ruth’s room and her final flight, the fourth is composed of the search of the nuns for Sister Ruth and the sequence has its climax when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean, confesses her love and in the end faints.
Furthermore it will be examined, how the cinematic techniques underline the main themes and to what extent film language mediates a sense of foreboding to the spectator. As a whole, the film deals with the fall of the British Empire, here represented through the failing missionary work of the nuns. The chosen sequence itself, however, deals with the consequences of the tantalising setting on the Sisters and their repressed sexuality which takes overhand. Most striking is thereby the juxtaposition of Clodagh and Ruth, who are shown as mirror images. Whilst the one overcomes the temptation, the other one falls for it and – when repulsed by Mr. Dean – in the end loses control and becomes insane.
The chosen sequence starts after the conversation of Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh, who are observed by Sister Ruth, whose image dissolves into the aerial shot of the dark jungle. The camera is positioned in high-angle. At first the black branches obscure the view, but as the camera in a tilt shot slowly moves downwards it reveals a group of Indian men sitting around a fire on the forest floor, playing the drums. When the camera arrives in straight-on angle a first cut brings the viewer closer to the drummers, as if he would sit right next to them, and a second cut focuses in a close-up on two hands beating on two drums, whilst the background is out of focus.
Following this, the scenery changes. A cut transfers the spectator into the dark hallway of the former seraglio. The establishing shot does not reveal much of the setting as most of the room lies in the shadows, a statue that is hidden behind a white curtain is distinguishable, the cloth is moved by the wind that blows in from the barred window on the right. The atmosphere is mysterious and gloomy.
Those two scenes introduce the main settings of the film: on the one hand the backward wilderness of the jungle, on the other hand the – seemingly – progressive and organized civilization of the Order.
The setting of the film is a faraway Indian village in the Himalayas and is closely related to ideas of eroticism and exoticism. As Kelly Davidson and John Hill write, “the ‘strange atmosphere’ that exerts such a hold upon the sisters is not simply the result of an irrepressible nature (air and wind) but the sensuality associated with the location and its people.” In fact, most of the movie was shot in the studio, sole exception are the jungle scenes which were filmed in a botanic garden in South England. The rest of the setting is all-artificial.
The house in which the Order moves is a vacant harem, but the past is still immanent and erotic murals and statues still decorate the old palace. However much the Sisters try to hide those, they remain present. In the sequence, during the scene in which Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh sit at the table, a montage sequence shows the passage of time. During cuts to the candle that burns down more and more, two close ups show the mistress murals, one of them half-hidden by a curtain, which was meant to hide the painting, what even more conveys the impression of her being in the process of undressing.
This impression is visualized a few moments later when Sister Ruth takes flight. A pan shot shows her seemingly shapeless shadow racing down the dark hallway and whilst laughing ghostly she accidentally grazes the statue which is located in the front hall. Afterwards the camera is positioned a few meters across from the statue and as soon as Sister Ruth disappears out of the frame, the white veil falls down and an angular close-up shows the revealed statue.
 Davidson, Kelly and Hill, John, ‘Under control’?: Black Narcissus and the Imagining of India, in: In: Studies in South Asian Film and Media, Vol. 6, 2005, p. 1-12. http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/uploads/docs/060001.pdf (18/03/2012).
 Cardiff, Jack, Magic Hour (London: Faber + Faber, 1996, p. 87).