Black Narcissus

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: Black Narcissus

Where You Can Stream It: The Criterion Channel

The Pitch: A group of nuns try to establish a new convent at an abandoned harem 8,000 feet above a valley in the Himalayas. But as secular thoughts begin to encroach on the women, they slowly start to lose their minds.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: One of the most gorgeously shot movies of the 1940s, Black Narcissus is written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the duo behind The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, which are all widely considered among the greatest movies of all time. That alone should be reason enough to pique your curiosity, but this recommendation seems especially timely: scrolling through Twitter, it doesn’t take long before encountering someone mentioning how horny they are during this quarantine, and this movie is all about pent-up desire. Powell even called it “the most erotic film [he] ever made.”

As the film begins, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is tasked with setting up a convent and a hospital on the edge of a mountain, and because of the challenges of even reaching the location, she requires the help of a local Englishman who works for the Indian general who controls the territory. The Englishman, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), is a handsome, flirtatious character who immediately captures Clodagh’s attention – and also the attention of Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Think a young Timothy Dalton, and you’ll be in the ballpark.

Farrar is solid as the movie’s hairy-chested object of affection, and it’s easy to see why the women would go nuts for him. Much of the movie just hints at the sisters’ barely-repressed desires, with quick glances and sweaty foreheads serving as the only physical manifestations of their attraction to this virile man among them. But Sister Ruth’s passion eventually becomes overwhelming, and Byron delivers a towering performance as her psyche begins to crack. Is it the altitude, the isolation, or the convent’s almost otherworldly vibe that causes her to lose control? The film never settles on an answer, and it’s all the better for it.

Aside from the excellent performances (Kerr and Farrar are very good, but Byron pretty much blows them off the screen with a much meatier role), the other big draw is the Oscar-winning cinematography from Jack Cardiff, who shifts the film’s visual style from a cool, lush serenity into a red/orange insanity, almost resembling a horror movie in the climactic moments. Though shot almost entirely on London soundstages, the movie’s incredible lighting and the use of color and matte paintings make this one of the most jaw-dropping Technicolor productions of the era – and it remains a visual feast even now, 73 years after its initial release.

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