Beautifully haunting, with pulsating eroticism as vivid as the Technicolor onscreen, Black Narcissus is something to watch when modern generic schlock grinds you down and you need reassurance from Saints Powell and Pressburger that film can express the very heights of creative genius when said genius knows what it’s doing. Because there’s nothing like a film that seduces you with its mastery to the point where the trickery doesn’t matter, and you just want to be caught up by its stunning proportions: the unparalleled depth of field, the sophisticated transitions, the seamless navigation of sets and rooms, the gorgeous juxtapositions of light and shade… all so exquisite and beatific that you could immerse yourself in it all for the rest of time. I still cannot believe this whole endeavour was studio-bound, I really can’t. I felt as though I was high up on that Himalayan ledge, tolling that bell, looking down with my heart in my mouth. And you know what? I wouldn’t have had that feeling had this been CGI-rendered. Technology may have advanced these past 70 years, but I tell you, this film is still as modern as it was the day it was released because it still leaves you gasping for breath at every turn.
Now, in terms of casting decisions, this film has not aged as well as its technique; seeing Jean Simmons all bronzed up to look like an Indian leaves a sour taste, even though her wordless performance is otherwise captivating in its sensuousness. One has to acknowledge these insensitive practices, but one cannot make them dealbreakers, either. So we move on to the true substance of the piece, wherein a group of nuns is unable to acclimate to an exotic land—a land that they do not (and cannot) understand, and one that doesn’t understand them. It is also a land they try to overpower in a well-meaning, yet ultimately misguided way, and naturally they do not win. How can they? They are strangers even to themselves. We know they are doomed, and yet the dooming is so remarkable in its execution.
Perhaps I shall leave it at that, and let Deborah Kerr’s taut face and Kathleen Byron’s crazed eyes do the rest of the talking. Images that are as difficult to forget as the painted snowy peaks that haunt the background.