England in 1947 might not seem like the best place and time to have released a film about the most secret desires of a group of nuns in a convent, but not only did the Archers pull it off, but is was successful at release and no one was lynched in the strait-laced streets of Surrey.
Black Narcissus is an unusual film. Simultaneously ahead of its time and awfully aged, it relies on underlying themes and use of spectacular color filmography for most of its impact–the story itself is pedestrian at best. And, of course, in 1947, you couldn’t show any nudity, even in a film about lust.
Without spoilers, a quick synopsis of the film is as follows: a group of nuns under an inexperienced sister superior (played by none other than Deborah Kerr) set up a school and hospital atop a mountain in an old harem house in colonial India which still has much of its original allusive decoration on the walls.
Quickly overcome by the sensuality of the place, the tropical pace and values of life, even the stoutest of the sisters begins to waver and doubt, eventually causing one of them to crack under the strain.
Unfortunately, certain elements that would have worked well for audiences in the 1940s have had their impact lessened by time, often becoming unintentional comedy. The most prominent of these is the initial entrance of the male object of desire. He enters his first scene and the important agent of the general wearing exactly the wrong length of bermuda shorts and riding a pony. As an object of female desire, I’m pretty sure this is a look he’d want to avoid in 2018.
Men were luckier. The female sex symbol in this film was Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl of the lower classes falling into disrepute before our very eyes. Though her story is a subplot, her presence helps solidify the erotic undertones of the film by including one character whose sensuality is in no doubt.
The rest of the interactions occur with a look here, a word there and perhaps the laying aside of practicality for color somewhere else. It’s done at a slow burn, which makes the suddenly frantic ending all the more satisfying.
In conclusion, this is a decent and surprising film. It has its flaws and hasn’t aged brilliantly, but is admirable for having done what it did when it did so.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. If you’re interested in eroticism (not quite as subtle as in Black Narcissus, but definitely more in tune with 2018), his ebook story Pacific Wind is available here.