Not All Caged Birds Sing: Metaphors, Foreshadowing, and Symbolism in The Archer’s BLACK NARCISSUS
10 November 2013
Question: what’s more dangerous than a secluded group of nuns opening up a school and dispensary in an abandoned palace on the Himalayan Mountains? Answer: nothing.
In a nutshell, this is The Archer’s Black Narcissus. Set in the Himalayan Mountains, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the Sister Superior, leads a small group of nuns into a turbulent environment, both literally and figuratively speaking. With the help of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an Englishman living in this remote area of the mountains, the sisters work diligently to renovate their new home, teach their pupils, build relationships with the community, and aid, medically, when they can. However, Mr. Dean’s presence, compounded with the sisters’ new residence having been a palace for the former general to keep his many wives, adds undeniably erotic and tense elements to the characters’ lives. And, when one of the community’s small children dies, unhelped by the sisters’ dispensary, a community revolt against the sisters threatens this freshly established sanctuary and pushes each character to his or her breaking point.
Without question, Black Narcissus is one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpieces. Not only is the film vibrant (a Technicolor wonder for its time) and overall aesthetic marvel, but the intense exploration into the human psyche, as explored through many of the film’s central characters, offers more than just a visual treat; Black Narcissus is a thought-provoking and thrilling cinematic experience.
As with all great films, Black Narcissus is comprised of exceptional parts which work together, harmoniously, to create a powerful whole. For example, the film’s cinematography, which was awarded and praised for the moment the film was released, juxtaposed dramatic angles with tight close-ups and quick cuts to build tension and support the film’s constricting tone. This cinematography works in rhythm with the film’s lighting design, another one if its parts, which seems to paint images, through light and color, for the camera to capture. These respective parts come together and help The Archers build a cinematically strong whole.
And, while the cinematography and lighting are undeniably awe-inspiring in Black Narcissus, one of the less discussed but equally successful parts of the film is The Archers’ uses of metaphor, symbolism, and foreshadowing, particularly as these three devices relate to Sister Ruth. Through metaphors and symbols Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) slowly reveals herself as a deeply repressed, unstable character, and the consistent foreshadowing of her demise builds subtle, steady tension in the film right up to Black Narcissus’ steep climax.
Early in the film, the sisters arrive at their new residence and start to unpack, discussing how to handle the general’s agreement to pay citizen of the community who visit the dispensary. This scene is set in Sister Clodagh’s chambers and shows several birdcages hanging from the ceiling, each with one bird inside. These birds and birdcages are metaphors used by The Archers to reflect the sisters and their new home. Like the birds, the sisters are trapped and confined. Taking that a step further, the sisters each begin to reveal, to varying degrees, they all repress feelings, memories, and/or desires; the birds, restricted by their cages, are obviously repressed, strengthening the metaphor. Like the cages, the palace covers most of its windows with fencing, decorative gates, or even bars. Because the palace is set so awkwardly atop a mountain, these restraints have their practical purposes—keeping people from falling (or jumping) to their deaths. Yet, as practical as the restraints on the windows are, the effect on the sisters is still the exact same as the birds in the cages; like the birds, the sisters have no freedom and are trapped in what Sister Clodagh call a “strange atmosphere.”
Importantly, this is also the scene in which The Archers begin to shape Sister Ruth as unbalanced. Mid conversation, Sister Ruth barges into Sister Clodagh’s chambers, frantic about the overwhelming amount of people visiting the dispensary. The Archers use a low Dutch close up on Sister Ruth as she comes in, the first Dutch Angle of the film. The style angle alludes to danger, a break from reality, and confusion, which, retrospectively, all fit Sister Ruth’s characterization. However, in this early scene, before the audience sees Sister Ruth’s unraveling, this blunt use of a dramatic angle stands out, foreshadowing for viewers how Sister Ruth and reality are not going to be in agreement, and that is, likely, going to evolve into a larger problem throughout the film.
Furthermore, the only thing included in the tight Dutch Angle on Sister Ruth is one of the bird cages and a reflection of another cage against the wall behind her. Thus, reading these frames on a slant, a connection is made between Sister Ruth, the birds in their cages (or, perhaps, simply the cages), and the lack of balance.
Shortly after this scene viewers are taken back to Sister Clodagh’s chambers, but this time the birds and their cages are gone. The scene begins with several sisters silently sitting around a table. Without explanation, and without being acknowledged by any of the seated sisters, a bird flies into the room, flutters about, and departs as mysteriously as it entered. All of a sudden one of the birds is free, perhaps suggesting one of the sisters, too, has escaped her restraints.
This free bird, metaphorically, is Sister Ruth. She has already freed herself of her religious restraints, dreaming of a life with Mr. Dean and no longer devoted to the life she vowed obligation to. However, her desires are delusional and have not place in reality; she has not actually left the palace, and the sisters are, at this point in the film, unaware of Sister Ruth’s intentions. Like the free-flying bird, Sister Ruth has emerged from her confinement, but still lingers, freer but not freed, in the palace.
An interesting point about Sister Ruth is one of her duties is to ring the palace’s large bell, the one outside, on the palace grounds, overlooking a large cliff. This job is significant because, again, it is a figurative tool and a foreshadowing tool for The Archers. Symbolically, this bell represents time. However, the bell also represents passing, and is used as a death announcement. Therefore, reading into this symbol, the bell foreshadows Sister Ruth’s demise, and directly connects her end with this location.
The Archers do not stop with one or two figurative suggestions and a hint of foreshadowing; the duo continues to draw attention to metaphor, symbolism, and foreshadowing as it connects to Sister Ruth. When Sister Clodagh calls Sister Ruth to her chambers, confronting her about her health and well-being, The Archers pull their metaphoric birds in their cages together with the bell symbol again, again foreshadowing the film’s conclusion. On the wall behind Sister Ruth’s seat is the shadow from the room’s fenced window. This shadow, cast just behind Sister Ruth, alludes back to the caged birds. Moreover, on the desk Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh sit at is a bell, just to the right of Sister Ruth’s right hand.
This simple, yet telling mise-en-scene pulls everything together. The cage behind Sister Ruth hints at Sister Clodagh’s assertion over Sister Ruth, figuratively trying to force her back into repressed submission; however, Sister Ruth is not in the fencing’s shadow; therefore, she is not pushed back into her cage, no matter how much Sister Clodagh wants her there. Also, the bell on the desk, symbolically, represents Sister Ruth’s perceived power; the bell is her responsibility, she has ownership of it. She controls time, or at least she thinks she does, and the bell is clearly within her reach. This simple yet significant shot construction foreshadows. Close-up shots continue to reveal Sister Ruth sweating, a sign of her instability and distress, similar to what the Dutch Angle communicated prior. Moreover, the bell is present again, suggesting that object must now be connected with Sister Ruth inevitable breaking point.
By the time this breaking point comes, the audience has been ample prepared for Sister Ruth’s death. Mad, Sister Ruth attempts to push Sister Clodagh from the bell’s platform only to fall herself. The bell chimes, marking both the passage of time and of a life. Also, a cut take the audience to a tree from which several birds unexpectedly fly free from. The foreshadowing has lead to this resolution, and the metaphors and symbols come full circle as Sister Ruth dies and Sister Clodagh survives…doppelgangers who took aim at one another (but that is a whole separate discussion!).