“I started out almost as a documentary director and ended up as a producer of opera.” Michael Powell
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s amazing movie, Black Narcissus, was a huge influence on my novel The Mirror, which is set entirely inside a Venetian convent during the Renaissance. I can’t remember when I first saw the movie but its images and atmosphere have been deeply embedded within my being ever since.
Released in 1947, the film concerns a group of nuns who try to establish a convent high up in the Himalayas. However, as soon as they arrive, their aim is constantly thwarted, first by the wind, lethargy and ill-health, then by the local people, then by the return of memories long banished and mental disintegration, and finally by the eruption of sexual desire. Although shot entirely in a studio, the film’s setting is breathtaking, created using a series of painted glass backdrops, and this setting acts as the main character, absorbing and dissolving all presences into itself so that, ultimately, all that is left is an erotic landscape of the mind.
The film works as a play of oppositions: melodrama vs art-house West vs East; Ariel vs Caliban; parent vs child; Sister Clodagh vs Sister Ruth; chastity vs sexuality; white vs red. This last motif is, visually speaking, the movie’s central and most striking image. The nuns wear off-white habits and no make-up, which makes their faces seem white and bloodless and so, in the scene when Sister Ruth confronts Sister Clodagh with her red dress and bright red lipstick and then goes on her lost, labyrinthine creep around the convent, the effect is all the more shocking.
Like the setting for Black Narcissus, the setting for my novel, The Mirror, is very static and so I was careful to ensure that conflict and drama was there on every page. There is conflict within my main character, Oliva, and on every other level—between her and the painter, between the nuns themselves, between the convent and the state.
And, like Powell’s film, I made sure to ‘colour-code’ my novel very carefully. In Venice, there is very little greenery and so the colour green plays very little part in the novel. The main colours in The Mirror are blue and yellow—the colour of the sky and sun (which is all that Oliva can see beyond the walls of the convent). They also happen to be the Madonna’s colours.
The only other colour to make an appearance is red, but it appears only in connection with Oliva’s sexuality—when she sees red pantaloons in a painting, when the painter spreads crushed cinnamon on her lips or when she has her period. Set against the bare walls of the convent, the colour leaps out at the reader and acts as an alarm bell, a siren, alerting Oliva that she is in danger.
There is also a ghostly element to The Mirror. Time and again, Oliva can hear voices whispering and the rustle of habits. In the corner of her eye, she sees robes disappearing around corners or melting into walls. Black Narcissus, too, is haunted by voices past, as seen in the erotic murals that adorn the inside of the convent.
Black Narcissus is many things—a chameleon, a Rorschach test, a palimpsest—and yet is as English as summer rain. A study of the stiff upper lip going quietly mad in the outer reaches of the Empire, the film is also the most erotic film a British director has ever produced. Powell planned the movie meticulously (even timing the whole cat-and-mouse sequence to fit exactly with the score) and built it to stand the test of time. It is one of the bona fide masterpieces from that amazing duo.
You can find out more about Richard Skinner at: http://richardskinner.weebly.com