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Obscure subject of desire: Women in Powell, 1945-1950

By Natacha Thiéry 1

Translated from the French by Google translate so it's little wonder if some parts aren't too clear. Don't blame Natacha

     The filmography of Michael Powell testifies to the major role of the female characters, from the quota quickies (The Love Test, 1934) to Age of Consent (1969). But this is particularly noticeable in the six films of the period 1945-1950 conducted in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger. Neither icon or foil for the male or femme fatale girlfriend or erased, the woman is his partner in the strong sense (A Matter of Life and Death, 1946 The Small Back Room, 1949) is the main character (I know where I'm going!, 1945, Black Narcissus, 1947 The Red Shoes, 1948 Gone to Earth, 1950). The resulting film narration often gives the female point of view and maintains the spectator identification. These feature films from the Archers are singular enough to be stressed: they contrast with the majority of classical Hollywood cinema but also of British cinema after the war. Here, the female characters are defined as (painful) subjects of desire: I know where I'm going! and Gone to Earth, the female savage and urban, religious or dancer, who is undergoing tests, each time, are on their status, not only against man but against the society to which it encounters for lack of being fully integrated. But the female character can not be considered apart from the question of desire: the woman gives birth but more particularly the one she feels. But taken or not, desire, always associated with danger, is the source of conflict and therefore the character of fiction.

     If the woman is at the center of the Archers films, it does not mean the subject of a feminist vision of gender relations. The films are rather difficult to light the female characters find their place and escape the alienation caused by a society that empowered woman (in her desire) scares. The malaise is not attached to the female more from a rejection - we will see, death is never a punishment - but rather a failure stated in its crudeness and its staggering beauty. The place of women, uncertain, fragile or random, is the mainspring of fiction and the stage.


States of women: the taboo of desire
     Despite their diversity, the six films of the period 1945-1950 all draw portraits of women who, despite their obvious attraction, are not so much objects of desire as subjects of desire. The films are the staging of this distinctive feature. One deploys to resist an energy proportional to its attraction (Joan in I Know Where I'm Going!), Another brave death to extend his being in love (June in A Matter of Life and Death), a religious terminates her commitment to finally become a woman, while a poor Indian girl dreams of a prince (Ruth and Kanchi in Black Narcissus), a dancer gives up her art to monitor and marry a composer (Vicky in The Red Shoes); courted a woman chooses her powerless partner (Susan in The Small Back Room), an ingenuous nature projects into the signs expected to address loving concern (Hazel in Gone to Earth). Conversely, male characters are waiting to be chosen, hoping to become the target of this desire.

     Black Narcissus is probably the film in which female desire finds its most extensive update. Everything suggests, in contrast to the status of the religious and requirements of convent life, sensuality, from the environment of the palace (profuse and colorful vegetation or steep terrain) to the wind that enters the palace, through the frescoes painted on the walls representing half-naked courtesans in lascivious postures. But this film is remarkable that man is erotic in it, through two male characters, Dilip (Sabu) on the one hand, and Dean (David Farrar) on the other. The young Indian general is characterized by attributes which the nuns, by abdicating their femininity, have given up. He wears colorful costumes trimmed in rich fabrics, jewelry and perfume, "Black Narcissus", whose scent upsets Ruth but delights Kanchi, eyes closed tight to this invisible fragrance. As for Dean, his physical appearance shows the will of the erotic Powell - with humor and in a visible gradation. As the film unfolds, the plans are similar to Dean's body to fit his torso and face. His shirts open as the story progresses, until he ends up topless. In one scene, Dean burst into the room where the sisters are met, only wearing his hat, shorts and sandals in a close-diving points against his bearing manly. The scene, unusual, almost naked man shows in tanned skin among nuns fully covered in their white uniforms, one of which, sister Ruth, worried and fascinated at the same time, approaches to better see and almost touch and breathe.

     However, the exercise of desire, as he leads the females to change their situation, is a source of conflict if a real taboo. Nathalie Heinich's book entitled States of women. The identity of women in Western fiction can understand this paradox. His approach is relevant to analyze the films of Powell and Pressburger, because in them as in the works selected by Heinich "most of the plot is based on a change of state of the heroine or protagonist or at least on a trial related to his condition." The definition of various women's status is relative to the author, in relation to sexuality, legitimate or not. Thus, it provides such a distinction between the girl "to take" virgin, and wife, entered a world in which male sexual and she agreed to sacrifice his daughter to be, so her virginity. Or specifically, virgin, woman against her will or religious films resisted heroin to an impasse, the issue of conjugal emblematise. In Gone to Earth for example, the sensuality of the character from the start installing an ambiguity in the identification of the heroine as a girl or a woman. Even daughter, an innocence that his closeness to nature notes, Hazel has a lag effect in which sensuality is the index misleading: although the quality encourages men to look like a woman (Reddin, whose look and pervasive voyeur prefigures the sexual act, or her cousin Albert), it is still in an uncertain space of uncertainty between two irreconcilable states. The difficulty for the character played by Jennifer Jones to go from girl to womanhood finds its most striking in the issue of marriage. The girl is wrong to take hold, because love is physically separated from conjugal love. Hazel hard to escape the burdens and religious community and alienation that follow from the relations between the sexes. She experienced an unexpected shift in the sexual world, which crystallized by its failure and is preparing its final death.

     First, the marriage of Hazel as the result of a strange promise to her father Abel. Promise, it is a trap that Hazel was convicted because, later she confesses to the pastor that she has no wish to marry. Second, marriage is updated in two ways antagonistic when Hazel married Edward Marston, the pastor, she spent her wedding night alone, later, she joined Jack Reddin and is owned by him physically, becoming in the eyes of the community, an adulterous woman. Thus, marriage is first delivered but not consumed, but not delivered and consumed. This construction is suggested by chiasmus staged elliptical. On the evening of their marriage, Edward and Hazel kiss at the door of her room, then he walks away to go to his own room: the wedding night has been validated only by a chaste kiss. Thus, Hazel does not know the sacrifice (the state of the daughter) that involves marriage, more specifically, it is not encouraged by her husband, too respectful of her innocence. Although their mutual commitment has been blessed in church, Hazel is not really the wife of Edward. Later, one sequence acts as a subtle counterpoint to their marriage official. After she believed (or rather, wanted) to read signs of encouragement in nature, Hazel goes to the rendezvous by Reddin. Or an essential detail stands out: her white dress is the same one she wore for her wedding. In so holding wedding, Hazel holds tightly in her hand a bouquet of wild flowers red. The staging and suggests she marries for the second time, but without the blessing of a priest. The act, which can be repeated without first being broken, is split almost immediately. As the man approached, first off-camera, a shadow precedes and gradually covers the body of Hazel, the head to toe. The dress is inevitably obscured virginal. Then the grasp is served indirectly by close-ups on the toes of people: those naked to Hazel that stands on its edge and drops her bouquet, and those, boots, Reddin that the hard soil and crush the flowers. Edward married Hazel saw her wedding night, so its defilement with Reddin. Daughter is no longer true, but has become an adulteress.

     Moreover, the status of female characters is still problematic: the nuns forced them to abandon their femininity first. Religious, it is no longer woman. But the film shows the pain of heartbreak born identity - all things considered, Vicky in The Red Shoes is facing the same ban, especially since the dance was defined by Lermontov as a "religion." This is because it is taboo as the desire which they tried in vain to resist is such an ordeal. Faith is not the subject of the film, no matter finally to the extent that it implies and requires the consent refusal of femininity. What interests the Archers in the nun is in it, the woman who resists or body in revolt. But through the double portrait of Clodagh and Ruth, The Black Narcissus exposes the cruelty of a state in which the nun is seen placed in the presence of an environment that continues to remind her that she is or she was wife when she is forced to renew oblivion.

     The confrontation between Clodagh and Ruth and their position vis-ŕ-vis the sequence in which the second night, under the fascinated gaze of the first, puts rouge on her lips, suggests a reverse symmetry between the two characters. Ruth expresses that which represses Clodagh, namely the assumption of femininity and desire. She is the one by which the panic of the senses, so dissent is spreading in the community. In addition, if the increasing violence scares the other nuns and the prioress Clodagh first is that it is proportional to the violence of desire. One and one merge. Even religious, Ruth is already behaving like a woman. A signal sequence brutally paradoxical conversion of Ruth as a woman, before she left the veil. While Dean is in the office of Clodagh, it arises without notice and in a state of extreme excitement, which recreates the experience has been both the witness and the actress. She saw the bleeding of a native and, in emergencies, has managed to contain it. But this repression of bloodshed marked the simultaneous release of his own emotions. As a result of a hazard fascinating, frightening and yet exhilarating - the blood - while suggesting that the resistance has definitely failed. The expression of Ruth translated into a panic effect exalted. Therefore, it is more than a religious woman. Her white uniform splattered with blood marks the sexualization of the character, in the same image and menstrual blood loss symbolic of virginity are exposed to view, as they will be later with the red dress in which it will replace the uniform show its uniqueness. The visual shock, visible in the eyes of Clodagh (including a superb overprint highlights stupor), is measured in terms of transgression that announcement.


Desire and danger, emotions and somatic psychic projection
     Combined with feminine desire in Gone to Earth, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I'm Going! and to a lesser extent, The Red Shoes, is taboo, but because it lifts the taboo, the assumption of the desire exhibited in the destruction and death. Stands out as the desire he felt the danger of erecting. If the affable Torquil represents a threat to Joan that it applies consistently to dodge (I Know Where I'm Going!). Because, promised to another, his erotic attraction could void her contract. But flight leads to the paradox of a sea voyage when the danger becomes real and this time presents the players to death. The episode of the whirlpool of Corrywreckan said the equivalence between the power of the liquid and the abyss of feelings. In Black Narcissus, too, man, by his very presence threatens the integrity of the religious order based on "forgotten" by the nuns of their femininity original. But it is in Gone to Earth that the link between desire and danger makes the most systematic. In the same way that the film is literally directed to the identification of Hazel Foxy, the fox, Reddin plays the "black hunter" whose grimoire inherited from her mother by the young woman maintains terror. The film, in fact, similar to a hunt that Hazel would be the prey. In the last sequence of the film, a montage of riders and their hounds on the one hand, and also of Hazel, vulnerable, holding her fox in her arms, suggesting an unequal struggle and increases the feeling emergency escape. Hazel, by her fall, depriving her pursuers of the killing. She literally disappears from the field of vision. Only the sound of pebbles falling with her and cry the pastor's tearful report his fall, and plans against dog-diving at the edge of the chasm. Here is the death penalty - in a neutral sense - an inability to find a place for the female, once stripped of her original universe (nature), absorbed in a repressive religious community (marriage) and abused by a illegitimate sex (adultery). It appears as a tragic escape.

     On the other hand, the body is rarely an erotic object in itself, but more the body as it passes through the erotic emotion, and more generally by desire, that the image Powellian allows us to see. Thus, the films uncover a problematic relationship to the female body. Subject to influence (The Red Shoes), lust (Gone to Earth), prevented (Black Narcissus) or forced (Gone to Earth), the woman's body does not belong, and she is not entitled a desire of her own, necessarily illegitimate. Under the influence of desire, the body is in motion it travels through space, the field filmed, is never, in all cases, static. But the movement of the body, in the context of a repressed desire - by the outside world or by the subject herself - is not to reach the object of desire. On the contrary, it encourages her to divert her course, to run. Thus, evasions and escapes Joan (I Know Where I'm Going!) Or race, Hazel (Gone to Earth). Ruth moves in one sole purpose, single-minded, to find the object of desire for an illusory union (Black Narcissus) in place of it, she feels the experience of the dissolution, in the fading out field and the sudden disappearance of the image, fused to red.

     Ultimately, the woman's body Powellian, because it is crossed by an impossible desire, feel the pangs of worthlessness or, if she chooses the rebellion of illegitimacy. That heroine is viewed with compassion and sadism (or both at once) is the strangeness of women - and this desire own which he is not right - is at stake in the heart of the films. Powell and Pressburger incorporate the mystery of female desire in their staging. This dimension is contained in the sense of fantasy that pervades Gone to Earth, Black Narcissus and even I Know Where I'm Going! and The Red Shoes. For, without limit, the fantastic quality of the image in Powell and Pressburger mystery reported that Jacques Tourneur also explored, such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Scorsese's commentary on the film illuminates the Tourneur film of Archers: "[The films] subverting a basic principle of classical fiction, the idea that people are masters of themselves. The characters in Tourneur were driven by forces they did not understand. Curse their fate was not in the Greek sense of the word: it was not an external force, it lived within their psyche. "

     Powell and Pressburger interrogate female desire and also report on virtually systematic failure of the latter, a failure that death provides a wrenching climax.


"In the end, she dies ..." Violence of an Unthinkable Possibility
     Films by Powell and Pressburger between 1945 and 1950 are marked with the imprint of death. In three of them, it represents a threat to which we can escape that In extremis: I Know Where I'm Going! (Joan and Torquil), A Matter of Life and Death (Peter), The Small Back Room (Sammy). More significantly, the three other films end with the death of the main female character: Black Narcissus (Ruth), The Red Shoes (Vicky) and Gone to Earth (Hazel). However, in these three works, the death was anticipated, or rather, announced at the outset, it was then confirmed by a network of converging evidence. But a paradox is created: when death is made, therefore, stated as possible, it remains for the viewer in the order of the unthinkable. It is unthought and its effectuation final produces a brutal, shocking. Although the audience was warned early in the film, it obscures as much what the already know. Also, the culmination of the diegesis, death operates by the disappearance of the mode of the eclipse.

     On the other hand, the three films are dotted with signs warning of multiple deaths. A detail of the image, a gesture or a word worth as signs claims. Recall that Lermontov, in his account of Andersen's tale "The Red Shoes," had this strange sentence: "Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by" and that he had answered the question Julian seconded this conclusion: "in the end, she dies ...." Or the tale, whose character dies in the end, just beyond the framework of the stage and pours in the course of the diegesis, the life of Victoria Page, performer of ballet. In Black Narcissus death is somehow embodied in the character herself who will come to the end, Sister Ruth. The religious element of the dissident community, is by its romantic rivalry exacerbated and exposed to light pulses, carrier of death. It announces the disorder, the emergence of violence, the overflow in the order of a destructive principle. Or the final death if it highlights the tragic failure of religious Mopu, is the necessary element to a return to order. But Gone to Earth (whose original title was already saying a return to the earth) is that the three films in which the suspension and almost the impregnation of the death of the character in the environment are more systematic. The recurrence of the graves and occupation of the father of Hazel, harpist, beekeeper and also manufacturer of coffins and funeral wreaths, still indicate a near death. In addition, lighting twilight, the sky streaked with red and orange clouds, dark twisted trees and the wind sculpts forms frightening in mineral concretions form a romantic picture of a landscape where the brightness is proportional to the misfortune that deaf.

     From the perspective of the stage, death is always a fall outside the scope, a death, a sudden absence of the frame. The character who was the privileged object of the gaze suddenly disappears. Powell films not only by death but by the ellipse eclipse of the body. Vicky jumps from the parapet under a moving train (The Red Shoes), Ruth trying to rush Clodagh loses balance and falls into the void at the foot of Mopu (Black Narcissus), Hazel, a fox in her arms, is engulfed in the deep abyss of a mine shaft (Gone to Earth). All face an inability to find the place to be.

     The death of the female character, an obscure subject of desire, coincides with the loss, for the viewer, the privileged object of his gaze. It is returned to his emotions. About a female character in the paradoxical identification on which he focused his voyeuristic gaze while suffering with it, the viewer feels the final death, although announced, as a harrowing event. This sudden death, irreparable, of the screen, no one imposes that the presence of the character in each sequence had not prepared and makes it more cruel.

     In the period 1945-1950, femininity highly problematic character crystallizes in a challenge to change that status, radicalized by the death in three of the films, gives his unique melodrama Powellian which replaces the "fate" the projection of a painful psyche, where the desire is synonymous with danger. Desiring subject, however, women struggle in vain to perform an impossible desire, the engine of fiction in which death alone, which is also cessation of images, resolves the impasse. No place to be, the woman disappeared with the latest images.

1 Natacha Thiéry is a lecturer in film aesthetics at the University of Metz. She is the author of Photogenic Desire. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1945-1950, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009.

2 Nathalie Heinich, States of a woman. The identity of women in Western fiction, Gallimard, coll. "Essais", 1996.

3 Heinich, op. cit., p. 17.

4 In Powell's filmography marriage and rarely associates happiness conjugality does not just happen and the marriage fails to punish the feeling of love.

5 Recall that the action of this film begins in 1897.

6 Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson, Voyage of Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Cahiers du cinéma, p. 100.

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