Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The setting is not soon forgotten: a palace jutting up from a sheer cliff face, as if grown right out of the Himalayan rock, the vertiginous drop over its side seen as a weirdly hypnotic combination of naturally forbidding and matte-painting fake. The severe monochrome of the stone echoes the starched white of the nun’s uniform as a clutch of sisters, led by the overly disciplined Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), arrives amid the local Indians’ riot-of-Technicolor existence (dyed garments, bright rooms, improbably lush gardens given the harsh climate) on the heels of the presiding General’s invitation to make his father’s former “House of Women” over into a school and hospital to serve the mountain-people peasantry. A superstitious crowd, they revere a mute and stationary holy man who’s renounced everything to contemplate the natural void that plunges all the way to the mountains’ base; not long into the proceedings, we begin to feel the nuns themselves teetering uneasily on the brink of their faith, which in this remote place no longer seems so axiomatic, their vocation's calls to service increasingly more challenging to answer.
Most of the surrounding scenery in Powell and Press-burger’s great Black Narcissus remains ravishing but quite patently plastic—famously, the Archers production was shot almost entirely in a British studio, with its two eventual Oscars going to cinematographer Jack Cardiff and art director Alfred Junge—forcing the viewer back onto the interior struggle, played as choked melodrama. If the fever-pitch conflict sounds quaint, then perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Cristian Mungiu’s forthcoming convent drama Beyond the Hills expands upon (and complicates) many questions of desire and devotion raised by Black Narcissus; the 1947 film—which portrays twilight-of-colonialism outreach as a strong (and perhaps destructive-on-all-counts) intoxicant against a heightened soundstage-India backdrop—would also make a hell of a double feature with Miguel Gomes’s Tabu (also at Film Forum, through January 8).
As the pent-up Brits come up against various obstacles while instilling their devotional order against the mile-high elements—chiefly the howling wind (an early-scenes ceiling fan signaling the relative comfort from which the sisters have been removed)—no one seems eager to articulate precisely what’s going awry. Both Clodagh and the progressively more unhinged Sister Ruth (a wide-eyed Kathleen Byron, providing the lion’s share of the film’s outward anguish) fall for the place’s pipe-smoking, khaki-clad, reflexively crude British agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) while “Clo” begins to recall a long-repressed romance back in her native Ireland. Powell and Pressburger, adapting a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, provide a counterpoint to this bizarre love triangle in the blossoming romance between a studious Prince (Sabu) and a nonverbal servant girl who happens to be uncommonly expressive in her lithe movements (Brit Jean Simmons, in the most prominent bit of problem casting).
In this psychological drama, the central role of the wind and “the atmosphere,” manufactured on a studio set from the deep drawer of movie-magic effects, has long inspired the kinds of dismissals that fold in on themselves (Geoffrey O’Brien: “By the time David Farrar remarks balefully that ‘there’s something in the atmosphere that makes every-thing seem exaggerated,’ he appears to be commenting on the art direction”). But this is a film that, like the recently spruced-up Red Desert, is in many respects about the alternating qualities of the colors on display, and the feature's reputation was perhaps bound to suffer as it is made its way onto home video, at least until Criterion issued a DVD just over a decade ago; the film’s stature only seems to have risen since, though it will likely never breathe the rarefied canonical air with its more poised cousin Vertigo. Whatever the case, Film Forum, no stranger to the Archers, has given a week to a new 4K digital restoration. And though by now this film needs no reintroduction, one might well marvel anew that Black Narcissus only seems to grow more vividly strange with each passing year.
Opens January 4