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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:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: The Young General's "physics with the physical sister" line gets a brief chuckle out of the normally stoic Sister Clodagh.
  • Adapted Out: In the book after Sister Philippa leaves, she's replaced by a stern Sister Adella - who is horrified at how the nuns have neglected their responsibilities. She's not in the film, and Sister Philippa only intends to be transferred.
  • Affectionate Nickname: 'Sister Honey' for Sister Blanche.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Sister Clodagh's backstory; later, her and Sister Ruth's fascination with Mr. Dean.
  • Arcadia: Sister Clodagh's flashbacks to Ireland paint is as such, before she reveals the reason she left in the first place.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Sister Ruth complains that the school room is overflowing with children, nothing is unpacked yet and the children smell.
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  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Sister Ruth's fascination with Mr Dean seems to stem from him being nice to her when he first meets her in the convent.
  • Betty and Veronica: With Mr Dean as the Archie, the demure Sister Clodagh is the Betty and the psychopath Sister Ruth is the Veronica.
  • The Big Guy: Sister Briony is told to be this, as Mother Superior says the convent will need her strength. She also doubles as The Lancer to Clodagh.
  • 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. 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Sister Ruth is shown aggressively taking a parcel from Joseph, trying to stop him from letting Sister Clodagh see it. Turns out to be a red dress.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Here, Anglo-Catholic, not Roman Catholic. The American release required a disclaimer stressing that the nuns were Anglicans.
  • 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.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: The Young General gets thrown off during a lesson when he sees Kanchi checking him out.
  • The Ditz: Sister Honey, an instance of Popular Is Dumb.
  • Due to the Dead: Sister Clodagh asks Mr Dean to tend to Sister Ruth's grave after they leave the convent.
  • Ethical Slut: It's implied that Kanchi is very sexual, but she is shown as free spirited because of it.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Young General's name Philip is said once before he arrives, but he's referred to as General by the others. In a meta example, synopses and reviews usually call him Young General too.
  • 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.
  • Foil: Sister Ruth for Sister Clodagh. Both are the most affected by the environment and suffer sanity slippage because of feelings for Mr Dean. Clodagh tries to maintain her sanity, while Ruth abandons hers and goes mad.
  • 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.
    • One of Sister Ruth's earlier scenes has her entering a room with her white habit stained red with blood. This foreshadows that she'll abandon her vows, don a red dress and trying to murder Sister Clodagh to have Mr Dean for herself.
  • Genre-Busting: The film is not a straightforward romance or drama, but rather a semi-erotic drama that occasionally veers into horror movie territory. With a dash of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane in there too.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: The film is dripping with innuendos.
    • The Old General mentions importing plenty of sausages for the nuns to eat.
    • When the nuns first meet Mr Dean, Sister Clodagh says she wants to talk to him on business. He responds "I don't suppose you want to talk to me about anything else" - prompting an offended look from Sister Briony.
    • Mr Dean says of the Old General "he too is a superior being" - again getting a scandalised look from the nuns.
    • The Young General mistakenly says he'll study physics "with the physical sister".
    • Sister Clodagh says of her former beau Conn "I had already shown that I loved him", which seems to imply that they had premarital sex. As she is Irish, it's possible Clodagh fled the Magdalene Laundries where she could have been sent as punishment.
  • The Heart: The popular Sister Blanche, who is nicknamed 'Sister Honey' for this reason.
  • 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.
  • Implied Love Interest: There's definitely something between Mr Dean and Sister Clodagh, but neither of them act on it or express any kind of feelings towards each other.
  • Improbable Age: Lampshaded repeatedly, where others are surprised that the relatively young Sister Clodagh is actually the Sister Superior. Deborah Kerr was twenty-five at the time.
  • Innocent Innuendo: The Young General says he will study "physics with the physical sister". Then he ends up meeting Kanchi.
  • Intimate Open Shirt: Mr Dean is frequently shown like this to establish sexual tension between him and the nuns.
  • Iron Lady: Sister Clodagh tries to be this.
  • Lady in Red:
    • Sister Ruth goes off the deep end and tries to murder Sister Clodagh and seduce Mr Dean while wearing a red dress.
    • The sensual and seductive Kanchi is also clad in shades of red and pink.
  • Lethal Chef: Sister Briony's coffee leaves much to be desired.
  • Like Goes with Like: The Indian Kanchi is introduced clearly harbouring some attraction to the white Mr Dean. She soon develops an attraction to the Young General - who is Indian like she is.
  • 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.
  • Madonna–Whore Complex: The virtuous nuns are contrasted with the seductive Kanchi, although Kanchi is portrayed as more liberated because of her sensuality.
  • Meaningful Background Event: When Mr Dean introduces Kanchi to Sister Clodagh, Sister Ruth is in the background. While the other two are talking, Sister Ruth can be seen glaring at Kanchi - possibly jealous of a potential romantic rival.
  • 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.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Kanchi meanwhile is an exotic beauty who is free-spirited and dances around in a seductive manner, heavily contrasting with the chaste 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.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Deborah Kerr and Shaun Noble keep their English accents, despite playing characters who are said to be Irish.
  • 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.
  • The One Guy: Mr Dean and the Young General are the only notable male characters against the five nuns, Kanchi and Ayah.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Kanchi is not the girl's real name, but it's what everyone calls her.
  • Pretty Boy: The Young General most definitely, in contrast to the Hunky Mr Dean. He attracts Kanchi and it's implied Sister Ruth too.
  • Pretty in Mink: Rare male examples. Mr Dean and the Young General show up for the Christmas service wearing elaborate furs.
  • Redhead In Green: Clodagh in the flashbacks is usually wearing green when we can see her red hair loose and free. In a Christmas flashback, she wears a green scarf over her hair and when she gets ready for a date with Conn, she's wearing a pale green evening gown. Her grandmother also presents her with some emeralds. This is averted with the redhead Sister Ruth, who dons a red dress for the finale.
  • 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.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Sister Philippa eventually departs after she's unable to keep up her duties.
  • 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.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Clodagh was this in her past. She had been friends with Conn since childhood and expected they would be married. He ended up leaving for America.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Neither Mr Dean nor Sister Clodagh act on the obvious attraction between each other, and the nuns leave the convent at the end.
  • Villainous BSoD: Sister Ruth's breakdown after being rejected by Mr. Dean.
  • The Voiceless: Kanchi screams occasionally, but has no spoken dialogue.
  • When She Smiles: When talking about Sister Briony's (bad!) coffee, Sister Clodagh lets loose with a cheeky grin. It's one of the few times she smiles in the movie (outside of her flashbacks). It also marks the start of something of a friendship between Clodagh and Mr Dean.
  • 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.
  • Yandere: After Mr Dean rejects her, Sister Ruth tries to murder Sister Clodagh because she suspects he loves her.
  • Young and in Charge: Mother Dorothea mentions that Sister Clodagh is exceptionally young to be in charge of a convent.

Example of: