I want to tell you a Christmas film: in a land locked in by majestic mountains, a nun falls in love with a militaristic ruffian who cannot give love. The nun agonizes over this desire that is taking over her; it makes her question her calling as a nun. Finally, the nun decides to renounce her vows and accept the love in her heart.
Sound familiar? If you guessed The Sound of Music, you are close but no cigar. The Christmas film I’m thinking of is Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 hothouse flower of a movie, Black Narcissus. Of course, the mountainous terrain is not Austria but the Himalayas; the militaristic leading man is not the gorgeously carved Christopher Plummer but a weirdly wooden (and thick-thighed in khaki hotpants) David Farrar. And the nun who renounces her religious calling for secular love is not perky pixie Julie Andrews, but the little-known Kathleen Byron, who plays Sister Ruth. I drew out the above Xmas card as homage to Sister Ruth. I’ve always thought that if I weren’t who I am now, I’d be a nun. If I were Christian-oriented, I’d surely be a different kind of Sister. There is something glittering about belonging to a gang whose aesthetic is ascetic. I’m still drawn to the streamlined stillness in their lives—the simplicity of dress, nourishment—as well as their classic devotion to education, of themselves and others. So this Xmas post is about how one fictional nun in particular has shaped my feminine idiosyncrasy.
Sister Ruth is the anti-Julie Andrews-as-Maria, just as Black Narcissus is a totally antithetical treatment of the plot structure of The Sound of Music: nuns, femininity, romance. Both films are structured by the journey by which a woman un-represses her sexuality and becomes heterosexual. The Sound of Music offers a happy ending, a proper heterosexual woman in Maria. Black Narcissus gives us the gift of Sister Ruth, a tragic ending for her, but a blazingly inspiring portrait of a thoroughly modern, thoroughly improper heterosexual woman. The Sound of Music is a Christmas film that isn’t really about Christmas. It wielded “My Favourite Things,” which has become a Christmas carol despite the fact that the only Christmassy thing about it is that the song can sound like a gift wish list—which is perhaps why I do love the song and film. Black Narcissus is its brunette bad girl cousin. It offers the world no carols, but a significant gift nonetheless.
Early on in the film, we are already cued to the fact that Sister Ruth is not quite right. When the Mother Superior suggests Sister Ruth as a team member to Sisterr Clodagh (perfect Deborah Kerr), the leader of a covenant to set up shop in the Himalayas, Sister Clodagh immediately replies: “But she’s ill.” Ill: Physically? Maybe. Mentally? Most certainly. Sister Ruth is hysterical, moody, and generally attitudinous. When she gazes out of her habit, her eyes belong not to a bride of Christ but to an axe-murderer:
Predictably, Sister Ruth is set up as foil to the protagonist, Sister Clodagh. Clodagh is control and reason; Ruth is lack of both. When, in the last 20 minutes of the film, Sister Ruth decides to literally throw off her habit and don a red dress, she is only fulfilling the sexual frustration that had been boiling up inside her, the sexual frustration that had become her illness. In a last ditch effort, Sister Clodagh attempts to reason with Sister Ruth, and offers to stay with her through the night so that Sister Ruth doesn’t do something she’ll regret—like running off to the arms of the abovementioned hotpanted man. The tableau is heavily symbolic, very pretty but boring.
Nun in white opens and reads the Bible(Clodagh); defrocked Nun opens a compact and applies blood-red lipstick (Ruth). The male directors use red lipstick to symbolize a woman’s madness: her desire to un-repress a pent-up sexual self. When Sister Ruth applies the lipstick, she looks beautiful but not particularly erotic—she looks as though she’s eaten a small child for dinner.
Lipsticked, Sister Ruth tosses off into the bamboo jungle to find her man and force her love upon him. He refuses her, and she literally goes mad. And here is where the directors, too, get carried away—with the metaphorical use of the lipstick: just before Sister Ruth knocks herself out in a fit of hysteria, the screen is overlayed with a red wash. The audience is put in the position of Sister Ruth, and we literally “see red.” What is more interesting than this rather pedestrian cinematographic trick, though, is what happens to Sister Ruth when she wakes up: her lipstick has been transferred to her eyes.
Knowing that this is a fictional, filmic construction, we understand that the red rimming the eyes of the actress Kathleen Byron is meant to indicate a physical manifestation of the exhaustive insanity of Sister Ruth. But when the filmmakers get carried away with symbolism, the materiality of the feminine object takes hold of tired symbolism and creates rebellion from repression. I like to read this moment as a supremely transformative moment of fictionality, in which the boundary between the reality of film production and fantasy of film consumption is pragmatically blurred. In short, I imagine that Sister Ruth herself wiped off the red lipstick from her mouth and slathered it on to her eyes.
At this point in the film, the well-tread narrative of feminine competition takes over: Sister Ruth goes back up to kill Sister Clodagh, whom she sees, perhaps not so delusionally, as love-rival. But I see this moment as a supreme moment of nihilist femininity. Sister Ruth rejects all pre-set structures of feeling, and this includes not only the sisterly love of the nunnery, but also the heterosexual romance that took her out of the nunnery. When she transfers her lipstick from mouth to eyes, she is taking that which is used to seduce men—neon-posting lips that will kiss or suck—and using it to highlight her own newfound vision. She turns her eyes into lips. Instead of inviting men to “read her lips,” she is trying to see the world with her lips. Had Sister Ruth been a real person rather than a figment of male film directors, she would leave the man’s house, not to kill another sister, but to wander the world with her mystic red eyes, to blaze her own path, her own kind of sisterhood.
The still is from 1947, but Sister Ruth looks so modern here: hair freed from tight sausage pin-curls, mouth erased, eyes lined red, it could well be 1997, or 2007. To imagine Sister Ruth as creating her own final persona is to see her marking her own nihilist spirit with the tools of femininity. When I slather on some of my beloved Shu Uemeura RD 134 lipstick on my eyes, I feelt pretty Sister Ruth-esque.
Maybe not an everyday look, but it is good, once in a while, to produce new functions for old objects of girlhood. Happy feminihilist xmas to all!