Film / Black Narcissus

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Black Narcissus is a 1947 film by the British director-writer-producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Rumer Godden.

A group of Anglican nuns travel to the Palace of Mopu, high in the Himalayas (near Darjeeling). They are there to set up a school and hospital for the local people, only to find themselves increasingly seduced by the sensuality of their surroundings—a converted seraglio — and by the local British agent Mister Dean (David Farrar). Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), a newly promoted Sister Superior, is attempting to forget a failed romance that occurred before she took her vows.

Tensions mount as Dean makes an impression on Clodagh, but also attracts Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).

An 18-year-old Jean Simmons has a non-speaking but still prominent part as Kanchi, a lower-class girl sent to the monastery to be a servant.

This film contains examples of:

  • All Love Is Unrequited: Sister Clodagh's backstory; later, her and Sister Ruth's fascination with Mr. Dean.
  • Break the Haughty: Sister Clodagh's pride undergoes a severe battering over the course of the film. By the end, the entire community has collapsed, with one nun dead and another leaving the order, and Sister Clodagh knows that she will not be given such a responsibility again for a very long time, if ever.
  • Brownface: Of the major Indian characters, only the Young General is played by an actual Indian, Sabu. The others are whites in makeup, most obviously the very very white Jean Simmons made up in very unconvincing Brownface. Averted with the background characters, many of whom were Indian Nationals who were working at the Rotherhithe docks.
  • Brutal Honesty: Mother Dorothea tells Sister Clodagh point-blank that "I don't think you're ready" for the responsibility of running a community.
  • The Casanova: This is Mr. Dean's local reputation, although it's not clear how much he's earned it.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Here, Anglo-Catholic, not Roman Catholic.
  • Creepy Shadowed Undereyes: Sister Ruth's Sanity Slippage winds up with her looking like this when having her final confrontation with Sister Clodagh.
  • Culture Clash: The conflict between the nuns (and the monks who preceded them) and the villagers.
  • Disney Villain Death: Sister Ruth falls to her death during her fight with Sister Clodagh.
  • The Ditz: Sister Honey, an instance of Popular Is Dumb.
  • Evil Makeover: Sister Ruth putting on her makeup in front of Sister Clodagh.
  • Fill It With Flowers: Played with, as it's a sign of being Driven to Madness instead of hope. Overcome by the landscape, Sister Philippa plants the convent gardens with gorgeous flowers instead of vegetables, meaning that there will be no food for the coming year.
  • Foreshadowing: Mr. Dean tells the sisters to be extremely careful about which patients to accept, as the villagers will react badly if anything goes wrong. Sister Honey later tries and fails to treat a terminally ill baby, precipitating the convent's failure.
  • Hostile Weather: The endless wind, one of the most stressful aspects of the environment.
  • Huge Rider, Tiny Mount: Mr. Dean rides into the convent on a Himalayan pony so small that his feet nearly touch the ground.
  • Iron Lady: Sister Clodagh tries to be this.
  • Lethal Chef: Sister Briony's coffee leaves much to be desired.
  • Jungles Sound Like Kookaburras: The kookaburra can be heard in the bamboo forests of Himalayan foothills.
  • Kubrick Stare: The signal that Sister Ruth is really starting to come unglued comes when she shoots a really, really unsettling Kubrick Stare at Sister Clodagh right after Sister Clodagh suggests that Ruth is getting too fond of Mr. Dean. Ruth does this several more times over the course of the movie as she gets crazier and crazier.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Sister Ruth's lust for Mr. Dean drives her around the bend. For that matter Sister Clodagh's lust for Mr. Dean obviously weakens her reason, although she's not nearly as far gone as Ruth is before things come to a head.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Mr. Dean, one of only two adult males who ever come calling to the convent, has a peculiar habit of arriving either shirtless, or in khaki shorts, or both. The nuns notice, especially Sisters Ruth and Clodagh. Then there's the Young General, who represents a more "pretty" version of male beauty as opposed to Mr. Dean's rugged manliness, but also draws the attention of increasingly horny nuns.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Sister Ruth eventually tries to murder Sister Clodagh in order to possess Mr. Dean. However, he's not interested in pursuing a relationship with either of them.
  • Naughty Nuns: Sisters Clodagh and Ruth are clearly attracted to Mister Dean.
  • Nuns Are Spooky: Subverted by Sister Ruth, who looks 100% spookier in a regular dress and makeup.
  • Old Retainer: Angu Ayah has been attached to the House of Women since it was a seraglio.
  • Sanity Slippage: Sister Ruth most dramatically, but also Sister Philippa and Sister Clodagh. It is implied the maintaining sanity in the remote setting is difficult at best.
  • Scenery Porn: Despite being accomplished by elaborate sets and matte paintings. The whole film was shot in England, mostly Pinewood Studios.
  • Servile Snarker: Angu Ayah, who is not afraid to express her skeptical/mocking opinions of the nuns.
  • The Silent Bob: Kanchi has no dialogue but expresses her sensuality non-verbally. Like when she's dancing by herself in the convent. Or when the Young General puts a stop to her whipping, and she responds by approaching him on her knees. It's not at all surprising when a scene shortly thereafter reveals that the Young General and Kanchi have run away together.
  • Taking A Third Option: Dean tells Sister Clodagh that the only way to thrive in Mopu is to either ignore their environment or give in to it. Most of the nuns do neither. With disastrous results.
  • Taking the Veil: The sisters must renew their vows every year, which adds to the tension as their stay in Mopu continues.
  • Title Drop: A nun identifies the scent that the Young General wears as "black narcissus". Said nun is obviously taken by her attractive young student.
  • Translation Convention: In context, it makes sense that the Young General and the Old General speak fluent English, as they're both interested in the trappings of English culture. But it's not clear why the Old General speaks English to Angu Ayah.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Sister Clodagh has a series of these as she remembers how her life was before she took her vows. They start out as Happy Flashbacks.
  • Uncanny Valley Makeup: Sister Ruth's make-up gets creepier and creepier as she gets crazier, to the point where she looks like she's wearing a corpselike mask in the finale.
  • Villainous BSOD: Sister Ruth's breakdown after being rejected by Mr. Dean.
  • The Voiceless: Kanchi screams occasionally, but has no spoken dialogue.
  • White Man's Burden: Invoked and interrogated. The nuns begin by thinking that they are admired by their Indian students, when, in reality, the Indians are just barely tolerating the arrangement.
  • Young and in Charge: Mother Dorothea mentions that Sister Clodagh is exceptionally young to be in charge of a convent.
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