The panning shot that reveals endless sands just beyond a red brick wall is indicative of Nicolas Roeg’s approach, and precisely what is needed to bring Black Narcissus to the Outback. Civilization has been tragically cut off from nature, the camera lingers on contrasts (a strip of concrete separates the light blues of a gated pool from to the deep cobalt of the ocean) as it lays out the flurry of glass, horns and signs that is Sydney. The girl (Jenny Agutter) has the prim docility of an apprentice stewardess, her little brother (Luc Roeg) is a towheaded Boy Scout engrossed by his toy soldiers; the picnic grinds to a halt as the father snaps suicidally and the children are left in fraying uniforms in the middle of the desert. "You must look after your blazer. You don’t want people to think we’re a couple of tramps, do you?" "What people?" A young Aborigine (David Gulpilil) undergoing his own journey into adulthood joins them. Roeg’s restless camera makes the Australian wilderness lyrically granular: Changes in angle give you the desert floor from the vantage point of lizard and scorpion, an overhead shot ponders the virginal heroine as a serpent slithers over her sleeping figure, a one-tree oasis is glimpsed with upside-down lenses. Freeze-frames, reversed footage (the father arises with a bullet in his face in a split-second hallucination), a soundtrack of didgeridoos, radio static, cosmic bleeps, reptilian hisses, chorales. Eden’s extraterrestrial elements are not lost on the tyke ("I think he might take us to the moon," he marvels). Agutter, on the other hand, fights her growing intoxication with Gulpilil’s loincloth-clad bod, cultural fear trumps sexual curiosity as she’s faced with his tribal courtship dance. After the tremendous tactility of nature, the travelers are properly welcomed back into society: "Don’t touch anything!" Peeling colonialism, awakening and the Dawn of Man are fiercely indicated in Roeg’s wondrously sustained fever, which modulates from Disney’s The Living Desert to Forster’s shocks in A Passage to India, capped by the Land of Lost Content as a middle-class housewife’s daydream. Music by John Barry.
--- Fernando F. Croce