This week The Criterion Collection reissued Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes on Blu-Ray and I used this opportunity to revisit this powerful film. Good God, it’s still incredible.
Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, a nun who is picked to be a Sister Superior in a new nunnery. It will be a convent held in the Himalayan Mountains. They shall set up a school and a hospital, all which is needed for a small Christian society. They are not welcomed with hostility, but curiosity. The previous inhabitants of the facilities were a group of monks who only lasted five months.
Mr. Dean (David Farrar) doubts the nuns will stay very long, but is always there to help them whenever they are needed. He is a charming man who is a bit of a puzzle. He doesn’t seem to approve of Sister Clodagh’s beliefs, but he still seems to be very knowledgeable of Christianity. He can sing the hymns without looking at the words and is often challenging the nuns on their true purpose in correlation to Christ. Hs presence has an undeniable affect on the nuns.
Immediately upon arriving, the nuns know the land is different. The high altitude makes the air strange and the isolation causes strain upon their sanity. Michael Powell claimed this to be the most erotic film he ever made. There are no advances or innuendo, but suggestion. The sisters are tempted by their own desires and this leads to one of the greatest endings I’ve ever seen in film.
This film is especially remembered for its marvelous use of color and sets. Yes, sets. When I rewatch this film, it is hard to believe they didn’t travel to India in order to film these incredible landscapes. Isolation is not portrayed though enclosed areas, but vast surroundings that never seems to end or bring comfort. Every frame of this film could be hung up on a wall.
This latest transfer only heightens that cinematic wonder. There is an unnerving aspect to this film where it seems like colors are fading in and out, matching the undertones of the character’s emotions. This was never seen as clearly until this edition.
The Archers, the name of the production team headed by Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are truly one of the greatest filmmakers of all of time. It is no wonder they are obsessed over by Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock. In fact a lot of the visual style of Vertigo is an homage to Black Narcissus. Their films continue to captivate people over 50 years later and this film may be their crowning achievement.