Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 Black Narcissus may seem at first only tangentially concerned with sex, the truth is that it’s the only film I can think of that treats sex as an elemental force of nature.
A group of nuns (lead by Deborah Kerr) are assigned to staff a hospital/school in a remote area high in the Himalayas. Their convent is housed in a building originally constructed for the prince’s harem, and erotic paintings cover the walls. The wind blows constantly and steadily, carrying with it the scent of Black Narcissus, purchased by the young prince (Sabu) in England. The sensuality of the surroundings begins to distract the nuns from their work, as does the presence of a rugged English agent assigned to help the women. While Kerr remains implacable as best she can – aided by the memory of a past love affair gone awry – Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) starts to mentally unravel . In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Sister Ruth dons a blood red dress and attempts to seduce the agent. Later, in a terrifying scene, Sister Ruth tries to kill Kerr. Her performanace is on a level with Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist (or, come to think of it, Faye Dunaway’s in Mommie Dearest, but that’s another column.)
This is gorgeous color film, expertly directed by Powell and Pressburger from Rummer Godden’s novel. In it’s own way it is no less subversive than Salo, for it shows the consequence of denying passion.