Starring: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrer, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Four nuns are sent to a remote Himalayan outpost to start a convent in a building that used to be a seraglio. Led by a young and inexperienced nun Sister Clodagh (Kerr) the four women are out of their depth with the location and the local people, who quickly lean on them for schooling and medical care. Whilst Clodagh turns to Mr Dean (Farrer) who works for a local general, he tries to impress on them the impossibility of their position, but his presence draws the jealous eye of one of the nuns, with tragic consequences. Meanwhile, a young flirtatious dancing girl (Simmons) given into their care seduces a young general (Sabu) who has come to learn at their school.
Cinematographer Jack Cardiff manages to capture the the film in glowing shots that show an exotic landscape and the young nuns in their sober habits looking like ghosts in the painted and crumbling walls of the seraglio. It’s quite an amazing looking film, especially as it was largely shot in studios, rather than on location.
While the nuns all stand for purity and good intentions, but they’re holed up in what used to be a harem and don’t really understand the place they’re in. They’re quite beautiful in their habits, especially Kerr and Robson, who are younger. Trapped in the foreign location, the film explores innocence and temptation, the women are isolated and slowly the temptations leads them astray or even into madness. One who should grow food only plants flowers, one who should heal knows that a failed treatment would turn everyone against them, and one who gets the smallest attention from Mr Dean becomes obsessed and jealous. The young leader looks backwards into her own life for the failed love affair she’s running from. Everyone yearns for something, everyone is tempted and there’s nothing to stop them from focusing on their obsessions.
It’s a melodramatic film, but it’s so beautiful too. The nuns seem so innocent and beautiful in their habits, and Jean Simmons (though tastelessly in a kind of blackface makeup) is archly seductive. I liked the characters in this film. I liked the way they were all a bit misguided and not really in control. The sense that their isolation and lack of leadership would lead them into tragedy was kind of arresting and fascinating. This film is full of light, but in themes it’s dark and yearning.
The title Black Narcissus refers to a perfume mentioned in the film. It’s a haunting scent that’s alluring and sensual, something that the nuns reject as worldly, and yet, they’re all drawn into temptations of their own that are far worse than a decadent perfume. There’s something about this film that’s enigmatic for me. All those yearning, desperate nuns innocently trying to handle things, but drawn into their own selves, isolated with their thoughts and desperate feelings. It’s a beautifully shot film, with a dark heart.
See It If: any Jack Cardiff film deserves to be watched, but this Powell and Pressburger film is dark and sensual while also being tragic and emotional, and also about nuns.