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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. Veteran character actress Flora Robson has a small role as Sister Philippa, and Indian child star Sabu plays the Young General in one of the few roles he was able to get as an adult.

For the 2020 series, see here.

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.
    • She also giggles when Joseph says that he thinks he's six, but suspects he could be older since his parents married four years before that.
  • 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.note 
  • 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.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's not confirmed what the result of the Young General's tryst with Kanchi is. He references the story of 'The Prince and the Beggar Maid', which ends with the prince marrying said beggar.
  • And This Is for...: As Angu Ayah is whipping Kanchi:
    "And that for stealing in my house! That for stealing a brass chain which is only worth two annas! That for stealing it in such a silly way! And for getting found out!"
  • Arcadia: Sister Clodagh's flashbacks to Ireland paint it 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.
  • Artistic License – Religion:
    • Sister Clodagh is still called Clodagh in the flashbacks to her pre-convent life. Nuns almost always take a new name when first taking their vows (in the last fifty years or so, this rule has relaxed depending on the religious order, but at the time of the film and book it was de rigeur to do so). Of course, since the flashbacks are framed from her subjective impression, and are done in a very stylized manner (as noted by Scorsese and Powell on the Criterion commentary), it might be that Clodagh has retrofitted her post-vocational name back to her pre-vocation life. In the miniseries she reveals to Mr. Dean that her name was originally Katherine as the nuns leave.
    • The original American release had a title card referring to the nuns as Anglicans. They're part of the Servants of Mary, which is a Roman Catholic order. This may have been necessary by the Catholic Legion of Decency protesting against the movie being shown otherwise.
  • Art Imitates Art: Director of Photography Jack Cardiff said that the lighting and color palette of this movie was inspired by the works of seventeenth century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. A tribute to him can be seen in the opening scene when the Mother Superior is reading a letter while facing a window. An image used by Vermeer in some of his most famous paintings.
  • Beauty Inversion: Kathleen Byron is one of the Trope Makers here. Sister Ruth undergoes Sanity Slippage and her make-up gets steadily creepier, to the point where she looks like she's wearing a corpselike mask in the finale.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Sister Ruth's fascination with Mr Dean stems from him being nice to her when he first meets her in the convent, praising her for saving a patient who was bleeding out while Clodagh scolded her. She tells him he was the only one who was ever kind to her.
  • Betty and Veronica: With Mr Dean as the Archie, the demure Sister Clodagh as the Betty and the psychopath Sister Ruth as the Veronica. But it veers into deconstruction - Sister Clodagh refuses to act on any of her inner feelings, Mr Dean is hinted to be asexual and uninterested in any relationships, and Sister Ruth goes mad after being rejected.
  • The Big Guy: Sister Briony is implied 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 actor, 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. While he baits and teases Sister Clodagh and is absentmindedly kind to Sister Ruth, there doesn't seem to be any real amorous intent behind it. On the other hand, it's possible that there was some sort of physical relationship between him and Kanchi, before he dumps her on the nuns to stop her pestering him.
  • 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.
    • There are several points where either Sister Ruth or Sister Clodagh ring the palace/convent's bell, juxtaposed with the sheer drop below. The final time the bell rings, Clodagh ends up desperately clinging to the bell rope while Ruth tries to send her over the cliff edge, and falls herself.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Here, Anglo-Catholic, not Roman Catholic. The American release required a disclaimer stressing that the nuns were Anglicans.
  • Color Motifs: For the costumes, Alfred Junge, the art director, had three main colour schemes. The nuns were always in the white habits that he designed from a medley of medieval types. These white robes of heavy material stressed the nuns' other-worldliness amid the exotic native surroundings. The chief native characters were robed in brilliant colours, particularly the generals in jewels and in rich silks. Other native characters brought into the film for "atmosphere" were clad in more sombre colours with the usual native dress of the Nepalese, Bhutanese and Tibetan peoples toned down to prevent overloading the eye with brilliance.
  • 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.
  • Downer Ending: The convent community fails. Sister Ruth is rejected by Mr Dean, tries to kill Sister Clodagh, and accidentally falls to her death, leaving Clodagh and Dean feeling responsible for inadvertently causing the tragedy. The nuns leave with the first rains, with Clodagh knowing that she won't be given such a position of responsibility again for a long time, if at all. And she and Dean, who've developed some level of feelings for each other, will likely never see each other again.
  • 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 and happy because of it.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Young General's name, Dilip, 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.
  • Excessive Evil Eyeshadow: A variant occurs with Sister Ruth putting on her makeup in front of Sister Clodagh.
  • Fan Disservice: Done very stealthily with Kathleen Byron, one of the most beautiful women in the history of cinema. First she's given a pale face, chapped lips and red-rimmed eyes; then over time they make her the only character in the film who's visibly sweaty; then, as she abandons the veil and starts to wear make-up, she clearly has bad skin under the makeup on her forehead; until by the end she pretty much looks like an actual corpse.
  • 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.
  • Friend to All Children: Sister Honey is the most popular of the nuns with the Indian children. In the scene of her showing them the newly grown flowers, she can be seen carrying a different child at multiple times. Joseph Anthony likewise calls her by her nickname.
  • 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: This movie is rife with the kind of innuendo the BBFC was not OK with in 1947:
    • 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.
    • When Mr Dean asks Clodagh to take in Kanchi and the nun is studying the young woman, he watches the pair of them with barely disguised amusement and almost lasciviously asks "You're sure there's no question you're dying to ask me?" practically daring Clodagh to demand whether Kanchi is his lover. She refuses to ask, so the viewer never finds out either way.
    • 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 (or worse yet, been sent there anyway and became a nun that way).
  • 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. The local people are used to it, but it's incredibly wearing on the nuns.
  • 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 outright express any kind of feelings towards each other. The very closest they get to it is Clodagh asking Mr Dean to tend Sister Ruth's grave, and his holding her hand for a brief moment as he agrees.
  • Improbable Age: Deconstructed. Sister Clodagh is the relatively young sister superior - if she's the same age as her actress Deborah Kerr, she's twenty-five. Multiple characters react with surprise that she's in charge, and the convent eventually falls apart. While it's more to do with the environment, it's likely an older and more responsible nun would be able to keep things running.
  • 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, but no matter how hard she tries, she can't hold the convent together.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: The other way around with Sister Clodagh. In every flashback to her past in Ireland, her hair is shown down, while in the present he hair is always covered under her habit, and even in bed she wears a nightcap.
  • Like Goes with Like: The Indian Kanchi is introduced while clearly harbouring some attraction to the white Mr Dean. She soon develops an attraction to the Young General - who is Indian like she is.
  • 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, despite the fact that he does seem to have feelings for Clodagh.
  • 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 desires him too.
  • Pretty in Mink: Rare male examples. Mr Dean and the Young General show up for the Christmas service wearing elaborate furs.
  • Racial Face Blindness: Sister Ruth ignorantly says that all the (South Asian) locals look the same to her.
  • 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 that 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. Apparently several Indian residents sent letters claiming to recognise the locations.
  • 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.
  • Tagalong Kid: Joseph Anthony lives in the convent to act as an interpreter for the nuns.
  • 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. Sister Ruth eventually declares her intent to leave the order altogether.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Angu Ayah whips Kanchi for allegedly stealing a chain from the chapel.
  • Title Drop: A nun identifies the scent that the Young General wears as "black narcissus". Said nun is obviously quite 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, especially since Mr Dean is shown speaking to several Indian characters in their language.
  • 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. The local girls that attend Sister Honey and Sister Ruth's school never speak either - as they are there to learn English.
  • 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, and the General actually has to pay them to attend the school and dispensary.
  • Wise Beyond Her Years: Male example. Joseph Anthony speaks two languages, acting as an interpreter for the nuns and is intuitive enough to notice Sister Ruth's and Kanchi's behavior before anyone else does.
  • 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. Deconstructed since she can't handle the responsibility, especially with the Hostile Weather and isolation driving everyone out of their wits, and the nuns eventually have to leave.