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Chose Black Narcissus from the Criterion Channel’s “All-time favorites” lineup during my free-trial week with the service, grabbed by its evocative title and its stunning marquee artwork of a nun pulling a bell-rope atop a dizzyingly high cliff. That title ends up sitting quite uncomfortably in a film full of discomforts, both intentional and otherwise.
Two things within the movie’s world are called “Black Narcissus”: a perfume worn proudly by “the Young General”, played by the Indian actor Sabu Dastagir—and that character himself, nicknamed slyly by the British nuns inhabiting the Himalayan cloister that he visits. As such, the Young General’s arrival to the troubled nunnery signals that, the setting established, the plot may now get underway.
So it’s all a bit strange when, midway through the picture, he falls in love with a local girl and simply leaves. This elopement occurs off-camera, and lasts for the remainder of the picture. The best explanation I have is that the hesitant, close-up embrace between the lovers—the last time we see either, but for a brief scene at the end—triggers a switch in the movie’s tone from grounded realism to a vertiginous dreaminess, commencing the nightmarish events which eventually dissolve the cloister. All because of… something in the air, I suppose!
That embrace also carries a strangeness not present in the context of 1947: like countless movies of its era, Black Narcissus sees no issues in casting white actors in other-than-white character roles. A modern viewer feels the friction this produces nowhere more keenly in the romantic pairing of the Young General with an Indian commoner played by the not-even-remotely Indian Jean Simmons. The teenaged Simmons—never speaking, layered in swarthening makeup—gets quite a bit of screen time, and I found her performance both pleasingly memorable and deeply embarrassing. I understand that the science of cinematic casting has learned a lot over the last 75 years, but I still find it strange to imagine that audiences were ever okay with such an objectively obvious mismatch.
I much more appreciated the film’s handling of two other unusual characters. I believe we are meant to understand the hunky and fortyish Mr. Dean, the local ruler’s European liaison, as gay. Nobody else in the movie seems to realize this, despite his penchant for extra-short khakis and brightly feathered caps, or—more significantly—his stoically amused detachment from all the nuns and village women who fawn all over him. While he does form an affectionate bond with protagonist Sister Clodagh, he gently brushes aside any naive probes towards romance that she offers. The final shot of the picture has the monsoon rains swallow up her mule-train as she leads the failed convent out of the mountains—while Mr. Dean only watches, eyelashes fluttering under the downpour. We must write our own background for Mr. Dean, based largely on everything unspoken in that last—admiring? regretful? nostalgic?—gaze.
The film’s depiction of Sister Ruth, meanwhile, struck me almost from the start as a surprisingly accurate and even sympathetic portrait of a person suffering with untreated bipolar disorder, though I don’t expect this to be a term in popular circulation at the time this film was made. The poor nun spends the earlier part of the movie lurching between being too sick to get out of bed, and then declaring that she can single-handedly run the convent’s elementary school and manage its gardens. The other nuns have absolutely zero idea what to do with her, driving her even more heartbreakingly off-balance.
The Young General’s sudden departure transforms Sister Ruth’s illness into a more generic sort of Movie Crazy. She starts ambushing nuns around corners with garish lighting and musical stings, while her motivations sink from the tragically misunderstood to the merely murderous. But, even so: she looks so amazingly ghastly in her final scenes that I would have assumed her appearance punched up with subtle CG in a modern movie, and not carried entirely by expert makeup and the actor’s own facial contortions.
On that note: the very modern work that this movie brought to my mind again and again was Immortality, the 2022 filmic video game directed by Sam Barlow. Players of that game spend hours sorting through a jumble of clips from three supposedly “lost films” of the 20th century, the most complete of which is Ambrosio, a lurid drama set in a Spanish convent. It also possessing a title that evokes heady aromas, enough to make the head swim at high altitudes. Black Narcissus did prove to have dangerously lingering scent, didn’t it?
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