Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes
You have to feel sorry for Britain’s film community. Directors don’t get recognized until they make it to Hollywood, at which point they become absorbed into the American system. Hitchcock and Chaplin were not only English by birth but by nature, predisposed to dry comedy and, certainly in Hitch’s case, dark irony. Yet they’re among the purest examples of Hollywood filmmakers, two of the five most influential directors funded by the American system, and they’re but early examples of America’s way of denying England its own cinematic glory.
As such, the relative obscurity into which Michael Powell and his frequent collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, have fallen is at once tragic and completely foreseeable. In their heyday, the British director and the Hungarian ex-pat screenwriter, operating under the moniker The Archers, could easily have secured work in Hollywood, but Powell never elected to move, perhaps aware that he was just too British. Fortunately for the British, there may be no director in the history of the medium more cinematic, save perhaps Nicholas Ray: both were first-class Expressionists, masters of color, shadow and the freedom of cinematic editing.
Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes comprise the second half of the most impressive four-year period of any director, each year marked by its own masterpiece. Starting with 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going! and continuing with A Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairwayx to Heaven, Powell and Pressburger’s gold run by no means makes up their only great films (to the edge of both bookends are masterpieces like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Tales of Hoffmann) but condenses everything the pair had to offer into four capital-R Romantic melodramas that will tear your soul to tatters.
Black Narcissus, timed with the independence of India in the same year, uses classical melodramatic technique to demonstrate why British occupation failed in the first place. A formalist triumph, the film contains arguably the greatest use of color in cinematic history (the only contender that comes to mind is Johnny Guitar). Not a single frame was shot in India, a jarring notion when faced with matte paintings, miniatures and studio sets so seamlessly combined that they look too real for a film made in the 1940s. Frankly, I cannot think of another film that uses miniatures so convincingly until I arrive at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy over a half century later.
Yet the falsity of the film’s construction aids Powell on thematic and aesthetic grounds: this is a movie about what happens when people attempt to remake the world into their own image, and its chief atmosphere comes from the total control Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff exerted on color and lighting, control they enjoyed precisely because it was all staged. A group of nuns take residence in a palace — a former harem, no less, much to my amusement — where they seek to start a school for girls and a hospital.
Soon, however, the splendor of their surroundings begins to affect the sisters in strange ways. Juxtaposing the plain, oatmeal-colored habits with the bright dyes of the locals clothing, Powell stresses how alien the British women are, perched as they are on the face of a cliff 9,000 feet above the ground in their whitewashed, palatial whorehouse.
Rather than use the exoticism to lure the women away from their vows, Powell stresses how the environment simply unlocks latent memories and desires in foreign agents, removed from their own surroundings and more capable of seeing what’s left behind. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the young and condescending leader of the group, starts to daydream of a past romance that drove her to the order when it failed, while another nun becomes so absent-minded and focused on something deep in her mind that she plants flowers in the vegetable patches.
Then there’s Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron. Where Clodagh sours in her repression, Ruth has become a bundle of nerves, crackling buried desire with every look. Bryon’s performance is one of the great performances of madness in the cinema: you can see it when she runs into a room early in the film covered in the blood of a local patient, looking oddly pleased with herself, and the mounting of her lust for Dean (Jack Farrar), the shorts-sporting government agent and symbol of arrogant imperialism, begins to twist her physically as Byron’s mouth twists into feral grins and makeup gives her flesh the pale green/purple hue of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. Combined with Powell’s masterful pacing and artistic staging, the simple act of putting on lipstick can be more horrific than any violent action.
Films about lost faith and buried sexuality are somber affairs, the realm of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Dreyer. But Black Narcissus is a movie of passion, sensuality popping off the screen in every shot as the tightly structured plot takes unperceived twists and turns until it winds up a full-blown opera. Powell’s approach lifts the feature out of any single message, blending in its critical study of imperialism and its suggestions concerning the effect of religious piety on the mind and body into a sumptuous feast of color and emotion, making for what may be Powell’s most gripping adventure.
But if Black Narcissus combined eroticism with politics, the Archers’ masterpiece, The Red Shoes, filters sensuality through its purest form: art. The climactic sequence of Powell’s previous film choreographed the action to the score, preparing him nicely for a film about ballet. But just as Black Narcissus quickly broke free of its social message to spiral off into far grander territory, so too does The Red Shoes use ballet as a springboard for a larger commentary on all art.
Lermontov, the strict ballet impresario played by Anton Walbrook, is modeled after the great leader of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghliev was a demanding taskmaster, but he also revolutionized the art form of ballet by seeking out the newest and most innovative talent - it was Diaghliev, after all, who introduced the world to Stravinsky and supported him even when the composer’s work sparked riots among the intelligentsia.
Lermontov is no less unforgiving, but Powell digs into the character, explaining such cruelties as firing the lead ballerina for getting engaged not as the whims of an artistic tyrant but the side-effects of a dedication to art. He tells an upper-class art patron that ballet is a religion to him, and when he finally acquiesces to her wishes to audition her niece, Vicky (Moira Shearer), he asks her a test question first. “Why do you want to dance” he asks with a hint of danger, but he soon learns that Vicky isn’t just some feckless relative relying on her aunt to get famous. “Why do you want to live?” she responds immediately. “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but … I must.” “That’s my answer, too.”
Powell & Pressburger frame the central conflict of the film around this idea, making an odd love triangle with Vicky at the center. On one hand is Lermontov, representative of art; on the other, Craster (Marius Goring), the young composer who falls for the dancer. Thus, the choice the dancer must make is between physical love and love of the abstract, love of artistic expression. When Lermontov expresses jealousy toward Craster, it is not out of sexual competition but a desire to see the greatest conduit for dance he’s ever seen dedicate herself fully to the arts.
Not that sex and dance are ever separated in the course of the film’s 135 minutes. Craster, already a wunderkind, finds writing even easier with Vicky as a muse. For his part, Lermontov clearly receives his physical and emotional gratification from watching ballet, and the reason he pushes his dancers, composers and designers further than anyone else may be that he must see bolder and bolder art to continue satisfying unaddressed biological needs.
This unorthodox approach to sensuality makes the naked repression of the nuns in Black Narcissus look quaint by comparison. Despite the setbacks of social norms, The Red Shoes contains the most flagrantly sexual moment in the cinema, and it’s a sequence that has no overt connection to sex. The film’s centerpiece is an epic dance number than breaks the rules of physics, much less ballet, to communicate how Vicky views art. Earlier in the film, Powell wryly touched upon the social nature of box seats in theaters, designed to allow the higher-ups to view each other rather than watch the show, yet Vicky never took her eyes of the stage. Once she finally appears with the group, the screen explodes into Expressionistic, libidinous freedom. Vicky’s dance partners vanish into costumed outlines that exist only because Vicky must acknowledge at least that she’s interacting with an object, and at one point her chief partner morphs into both Lermontov and Craster. This is what it looks like to see a genius attuned to the craft, and Powell stresses that Vicky doesn’t care an ounce for fame when he imposes a shot of waves crashing on a rocky beach in place of the applauding audience: the crowd is just background noise behind what really matters.
Brilliantly, Powell allows the audience to truly ponder the question of choosing romance over art. Vicky, confined by gender roles of the day, should not have even been given the option of following her career at the expense of a relationship, but the director understands genius. Had Mozart not died at 35 but instead given up music to appease a lover, would we look upon that act as a romantic gesture, or the denial of a world-class talent to appease the whims of one lovesick individual? As Powell gave his nuns the freedom to have physical desires in Black Narcissus, he also gives Vicky the option of making a choice between two equally viable options. Whatever choice she makes will be tragic, and the film is made even more heartbreaking through Powell’s effortless control of empathy, an emotional counterbalance to the cold tricks of the other British master, Hitchcock.
If you’re still on the fence about these films, I can only point to Powell’s biggest fan to try to sell you: if you like Martin Scorsese, I can personally guarantee you will love these movies. Marty includes something of Powell into all of his films — the shadowed boxing crowds in Raging Bull reflect the subjectivity of a master focused solely on the craft and not who’s enjoying it, and Shutter Island contains open homages to both Black Narcissus (looking down the cliff) and The Red Shoes (the spiral staircase Leo climbs at the end). Scorsese even befriended Powell after the Brit found himself out of work after the better-than-Psycho psychosexual thriller Peeping Tom and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, married Powell. If I ever met Scorsese, we might end up mutually gushing over the Archers more than Marty’s own work, but that’s the effect Powell has on you: less cynical than Nick Ray, Powell belongs in the pantheon of directors with a pure grasp on emotion along with Griffith, Kurosawa and other rarefied names. I cannot promise that you will like these two films but — arrogant as this may be — I can say that, if you don’t, the problem doesn’t lie with Powell.
The restorations for both Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes were joint efforts on behalf of Janus Films (Criterion’s parent company) and the British ITV, who put out their own Blu-Rays a year ago. I’d been wondering when Criterion would finally get around to releasing copies Stateside. The wait was worth it. ITV’s single-layer discs are, judging from screenshot comparisons, perfectly suitable transfers of the restoration. The Criterion discs, however, use dual-layer BDs and take up nearly all the bitrate. The result is a crisper image, not to the point that those in Region B need to seethe but noticeable enough in places, especially on Black Narcissus. Either way, these images are breathtaking, restoring the impeccable color of Jack Cardiff’s cinematography fully. I’m happy that Criterion brought their old method of restoration demonstrations out of the box after a few studios complained in the past to show just how completely ITV and Janus cleaned up the film.
Both films were stunning even in their damaged versions, but now the imagery achieves maximum effect. The blue sky that catches Clodagh’s attention while praying in the drab chapel is even more arresting in its new clarity, as is the close-up of Vicky’s made-up face while dancing. Criterion’s restorations are often revelatory, and the work they did earlier this year with Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece, Bigger Than Life, demonstrated clearly what they could achieve with old Technicolor movies, but these are vital upgrades to two of the most beautiful films ever made, looking better even than Ray’s visual tour-de-force.
The audio is strong to boot, communicating the boisterous scores of classical filmmaking and leaving the dialogue crisp. But it’s the imagery that will suck you in time and again, eradicating the many issues of fading, scratches and blurring that plagued the weak transfer of the three-strip Technicolor when Criterion first put these on DVD.
Most of the two films’ extras come from the original DVDs, but they were among Criterion’s best supplements. A commentary track for Black Narcissus featuring the director and Martin Scorsese in particular is one of the greatest DVD extras of all time, and the discs have been fleshed out with updated pieces on the restorative efforts that went into cleaning up the film, all of which are worth a look to those who respect what specialty companies like Criterion and ITV do for classic films. There’s some inevitable overlap between making-of features and individual interviews, but overall the extras pad out the most impressive one-two punch Criterion has released this year.
Both of these films are true masterpieces, and I count The Red Shoes among my 10 favorite films of all time. I tried to keep my reviews short this time, finally remembering that my usual style is meant for those who have seen the movie, not those thinking of buying it. But I also held back because it’s all too easy to lose oneself in superlatives when discussing Powell & Pressburger. People tend to view classic films in a vacuum, as if standing behind a velvet rope in a museum, and even when people say, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” they slip in an undercurrent of relief beneath the perfunctory regret. But Powell is one of those old filmmakers who, like Ray, could slip under your skin and break boundaries so completely that you didn’t even realize just how many risks they’d taken until you reach the end. The vibrancy of these two films, made clearer through the nearly perfect restorations, is arresting in the way that few modern films are, not because people don’t try as hard or because somehow things are only good when they’ve aged or other nonsense, but because Powell & Pressburger were as attuned to their art form as Vicky Page was to the ballet. Cinema was in their blood, and not the tragedy of Powell’s eventual artistic exile can undercut the majesty of their work. Regardless of what Powell film I watch, even ones not written by his Hungarian friend, I think of a conversation the two shared in preparation for I Know Where I’m Going!: Pressburger wanted to make a movie about a woman on an island, and the director wanted to know how she got there. Without missing a beat, Emeric replied, “Let’s make the film and find out.”
- Jake Cole is a journalism student at Auburn University, where he regularly avoids people in favor of writing about film, television and music on his blog, Not Just Movies. He aspires to be a critic, partially out of his love for film but mainly because he’s always dreamed of living a life of extreme poverty.
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