November 25, 2010
Black Narcissus (1947) ****
Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Black Narcissus (1947)- A bit rushed and unfocused, but it's gorgeous, well-acted and truly disturbing. Burrows under the skin. **** of 5
The Red Shoes (1948) ****1/2
Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
The Red Shoes (1948)- Good story. Transcendent ballet sequence. Visually one of the richest films I've seen. ****1/2 out of 5
As I've been following Filmspotting's Powell/Pressburger marathon, I've been basically delighted and impressed with all aspects of all four films I've seen thus far--the other two being The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Not surprisingly, cinematographer Jack Cardiff's visuals especially stand out, allowing the films to take on an almost other-worldly, ethereal quality unlike anything else I've seen. A Powell/Pressburger film is not just any other film. It's whimsical and beautiful--a cinematic palate cleanser if you will.
On the other hand, I'm also starting to worry that Powell/Pressburger films don't quite match up in the way their narratives are structured. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp dealt with so many grand themes that its two hour and forty minute running time worked perfectly. A Matter of Life and Death clocked in at under two hours, as did Black Narcissus. The Red Shoes is a little over two hours. The three later films similarly cram so much into their plots, and none match Blimp's ability to let characters' motivations truly play out. They all feel a bit rushed, giving us endings that don't satisfy as well as they could.
That being said, both Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes do ultimately satisfy both in their stunning visuals and in their admittedly imperfect narratives. Both films are much sadder, darker and more disturbing than the other two Powell/Pressburger films mentioned above. Black Narcissus tells an odd story of a group of nuns that open a school and infirmary in a small mountainside village in India. The altitude, matched with the white women's profoundly naive superiority and arrogance, brings a startlingly bleak conclusion. Never has the phrase, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," been more relevant on screen.
The Red Shoes explores the high pressured, self-serious world of professional ballet and what it does to both a young composer and an up and coming ballet dancer. The young composer is immediately exposed to the immoralities of the world of ballet when he hears his own composition played without permission or credit at a ballet conducted by his teacher from his music academy. His complaint to the egomaniacal producer of the ballet company leads to a commission to compose a score for a new ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, The Red Shoes, which tells an ultimately tragic story of an obsessive ballet dancer. The novice dancer who plays the lead in the ballet throws herself completely into the role, and, after a sublimely successful performance, finds life mirroring art as a love relationship with the composer comes between her and the producer who has complete control over her career which she admits is her entire life.
Both films are so visually beautiful, though The Red Shoes' glorious ballet sequence trumps anything in Black Narcissus, which does rely on blatantly artificial sets just a bit too much. The ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is so ecstatically beautiful that it almost completely overshadows everything else. The entire first hour sets the stage for the ballet through deliberate character and plot expositions. Everything's so dry, sophisticated and stuffy up to this point that the total abandon of the ballet itself sets the screen ablaze with such passion and energy. Powell and Pressburger wisely interpret the ballet beyond the confines of a stage and allow it to flourish cinematically, and everyone involves is clearly up for the challenge. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is one of the great sequences in all film.
Everything else in The Red Shoes and everything in Black Narcissus is aptly satisfactory, with solid stories that perhaps become a bit too dramatic with their pseudo-horror conclusions. The performances all around are quite impressive, especially by Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus. My understanding is that it was this performance which introduced Kerr to American audiences, and she would go on to have one of the most impressive careers in Hollywood history, receiving six Oscar nominations and winning a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1994. She plays a newly named Mother Superior placed in a situation beyond her or anyone else's abilities. Kerr is an electric presence on screen, even when her character must maintain and heir of calm and composure.
I look forward to watching two more Powell/Pressburger films as my additions to Filmspotting's Marathon--1941's 49th Parallel and 1945's I Know Where I'm Going. I'm also eager to check out Michael Powell's 1960 horror classic Peeping Tom which is the final Filmspotting film in the marathon. Their filmmaking style is so wonderfully rich and warm, and I've found myself really appreciating their artistry as much as (if not more than) the films' narratives. Many have called 2010 a weak year for films, and so far I agree completely. Maybe some true artistry is just what all filmgoers might need to experience these days.