In Black Narcissus, Michael Powell's hypnotically beautiful film about nuns who relocate to a convent in the Himalayas only to become haunted by the earthly delights of their pasts, Caron's 1911 perfume Narcisse Noir is but one enticement to the world of sensuality.
For those of you lucky enough to have smelled the deliciously decadent vintage perfume Narcisse Noir by Caron, the above clip from Michael Powell's 1947 film Black Narcissus depicting its disquieting effect will make perfect sense. With its white orange blossom flower's pact with the devil and one of the lowest animalic base note growls in the history of perfume, Narcisse Noir is a reference perfume for those fetishized perfume terms "indolic" and "animalic" that make some perfumistas look for their fainting couches.
When the film begins, a group of Anglican nuns are asked to relocate to a palace in the Himalayas that was once the playground of concubines. They are to start a new order, headed by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, below left), that will serve as a school and a hospital for the locals. Nevermind that monks who attempted the same thing previously failed spectacularly. "The Himalayas," says resident macho man and British overseer of the region, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), "is no place for a nunnery."
Amid the intoxicating natural splendor of the Himalayas is the artificial paradise, as Charles Baudelaire described it, of perfume. If the Himalayas is no place for a nunnery, then Black Narcissus is no perfume for one. In the above clip, a bejeweled, perfumed and bedecked local General (Sabu) removes his scarf one day during a study session at the convent. Redolent with Black Narcissus perfume he got "at the Army/Navy store in London," the scarf's scent bemuses Sister Ruth (the astonishing Kathleen Byron). "I don't like scent at all," she declares icily. To an inverse degree, the scent mesmerizes local bad girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons in unfortunate "brown face") who inhales its elixir, swooning in reverie. "Sister," asks the General, "don't you think it rather common to smell of ourselves?"
Common or not, resistance to all manner of sensual enticements proves futile. Almost as soon as they arrive, the nuns find themselves no match against their new home's haunting beauty. Memories of romantic and natural delights from their past threaten their dedication to the nunnery, to their vows of chastity, and in one nun's case, to sanity itself. But it's not just their past that seduces. Don't forget resident bohunk Mr. Dean, who is one of the palace's seductive features, along with the altitude, rolling greenery, flowers, and perfume.
An allegory for the failure of both British colonialism and its fantasies of "civilizing" natives, Black Narcissus is also about the power of sensual beauty over attempts to repress it. Baudelaire, who loved perfume and cosmetics as two of the "Flowers of Evil," would be pleased by a scene that symbolizes one nun's embrace of the dark side: the most dramatic application of red lipstick I think I've ever seen in the movies. As one reviewer writes, "It is enough to see the bright, red lipstick that Sister Ruth has put on to know that the apocalypse is near."
Perfume and lipstick as the downfall of civilization, or at least the harbinger of the occasion? I think I speak for many of us who say, "Bring it on."
(Thanks to my dear friend Jonno for introducing me to Black Narcissus and for grabbing the above clip. I should probably mention that although Sabu says that his perfume is Black Narcissus and not "Narcisse Noir," and Perfume Intelligence lists a few other obscure Black Narcissus perfumes — by Ahmed Soliman , The Bacorn Co. , Parfums d'Arys  and Lotus du Noel , I choose to believe that only Narcisse Noir could have elicited Kanchi's reaction and Sabu's devotion. Also, If you're concerned with what seems like the film's binary between natural/unnatural, natives/civilizing Brits — and you should be — also note that the film splendidly deconstructs this in dizzying, and probably unwitting ways. For one, by creating the "natural" Himalayas exclusively on a London soundstage, and by introducing the sensuality of native Sabu via the unnatural Western perfume he bought at the Army/Navy store. But don't get me started on poor Kanchi's face.)