Filmsite Movie Review
Black Narcissus (1947)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Mr. Dean's Suggestions About Their Bewildering Living Conditions:

There was a flurry of activity at the palace, organized by an often-present and useful Mr. Dean. Villagers hauled planks of wood for carpenters and wood-workers (sanders and lathe operators) were summoned to improve their hard-pressed conditions. Mr. Dean was acting as an amateur plumber to repair a loose joint in the piping, although he was reprimanded for trespassing by Sister Philippa. There were tremendous demands and hurdles for the nuns - they still needed to build a workroom and school, and eventually a chapel. The Sisters met to complain to Sister Clodagh about their difficult living conditions amidst the incessant wind:

The windows don't open and the door won't shut and the plumbing won't work.

Mr. Dean was summoned to Sister Clodagh's office (he jokingly wrote in chalk on the outer door "COURT IN SESSION" with an arrow pointing inward), where he was asked why the native villagers were being paid to attend, rather than just being ordered. The cynical Mr. Dean explained the General's "missionary" strategy, and how he was treating them like children:

Ah, the General's a wise man. It's only till it becomes a habit. Let it become a habit for them to come, and they won't remember a time when they didn't. Then gradually, he'll leave off paying them. and gradually it'll become a habit with 'em not to be paid. They're like children.

[Note: Throughout British history, colonizers and missionaries to distant lands and to their subservient inhabitants had also exhibited paternalistic, condescending, and domineering attitudes.]

He also advised Sister Briony to be wary of treating serious or dangerous medical cases (with "magic"), and suggested not to take them on:

If you got a bad case and some of your people died, you'd have all the people up against you....Well, you must remember, they're primitive people and like, like children. Unreasonable children. They've never seen medicine before. They'd think it was magic, a new kind of magic. So remember, I've warned you.

When the Sisters mentioned that the water might be causing illness, specifically affecting Sister Ruth, he disagreed with them - and exploitatively implied that he was their only solution to their many issues: "On the contrary. The water's too good. It's Darjeeling tummy. I'd better get that plumbing fixed." The Sisters were forced to rely on Mr. Dean for practical handyman assistance, without any other choice.

Sister Ruth's Reprimand - and Her Infatuation with Mr. Dean:

The hyper-aroused and excitable Sister Ruth burst into the office - splotches of red blood emblazoned her white habit - as she told how she had succeeded in treating a female patient with a burst blood vessel:

Oh, Sister, Sister, they brought in a woman. Our first bad case. She was covered in blood. I've never seen such a sight. She must've cut a vein or an artery. I had such a time stopping the bleeding. I've never seen bleeding like that before. I didn't know what to do at first, but at last I managed to stop it.

For the second time, there was conflict between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth, who was reprimanded for overstepping her duties and for failing to summon Sister Briony ("who would've stopped it at once"), although her good intentions were to help in the emergency situation. Sister Ruth was sent to her room, but Dean saw her aggrieved reaction and commended her for her efforts: "I hope your patient does well...One of my best workers. I'm very much obliged to you." Sister Ruth responded with a smile and gratitude for his kindness and recognition, and from thenceforth, became fixated on him.

Mr. Dean's Presentation of Kanchi and the Young General:

Sister Ruth was obviously intrigued by Mr. Dean (always wearing skimpy khaki shorts and a low-cut short-sleeved shirt to exhibit his hairy arms, to unwittingly send the nuns into a frenzy), and took every opportunity to gaze at or interact with him if she happened to see him on the grounds. He had arrived with a 17 year-old orphaned village girl-maid named Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a provocative dancer (with a ring in her nose and flowers in her hair) from a lower caste. He had brought her to the convent to pawn her off on the nuns, since she had been misbehaving and ruining her chances for marriage, and needed to be disciplined and cloistered. The barefooted girl with brightly-colored garments sat on her battered suitcase as she ate a ripe piece of melon (sexually-symbolic of her own youthful, tempting and desirable ripeness), while she was described by Mr. Dean as a rebellious, problematic bride-to-be:

She's 17, she's an orphan and it's high time she was married. Every evening when I come home, I find her sitting on my veranda. She dresses herself up, puts flowers in her hair. It's becoming an absolute nuisance. If she's cloistered for a few months, her uncle will marry her off. But she's been behaving so badly that no one wants her.

When Sister Clodagh initially expressed a reluctance to house the young girl, Mr. Dean insolently and disrespectfully quipped:

Sister Clodagh: I don't think we want her, either. Why did you bring her to us?
Mr. Dean: Isn't it your business to save souls?
Sister Clodagh: You are not to speak to me like that, Mr. Dean.

Sister Clodagh inspected Kanchi (their two modes of clothing were strikingly contrasted), while Sister Ruth stood in the background and glared jealously at the intrusive and liberated young girl. Sister Clodagh felt duty-bound and assented to Mr. Dean's suggestion to take her in and show "patience" toward her. He provocatively asked the Sister: "Are you sure there's no question you're dying to ask me?" - insinuating obscenely that she was a tempting and sin-inducing sexual object. Plans were made to admit her into Sister Honey's lay school, and to have her do housework for Ayah. Mr. Dean also mentioned the passing of the Young General's death, and information about a new Young General named Dilib Rai, a member of a "fighting race." The Old General's nephew was Western-educated at Cambridge ("He was going to Cambridge, but now he'll be a warrior and marry young").

In the school-room, young Joseph Anthony taught the children English words for weapons (cannon, warship, bayonet, dagger, and gun) - a subversive subject matter for a lesson - British implements of militaristic imperialism. As he was instructing the children, the boy noticed the distracted Sister Ruth who had lost all interest in the class. Instead, she spying on Mr. Dean's departure through the lattice-work window.

Sister Philippa's Loss of Her Godly Purpose:

Sister Ruth again approached the bell-tower to pull on the rope to signal prayer-time, but first looked down into the deep chasm next to the cliff-side. She smiled devilishly as head-bowed Sister Clodagh offered a prayer from her open window: "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed is the fruit..." She paused (with a rectangular-shaped shadow crossing over her eyes) when she observed Sister Philippa in the nearby garden, looking at the mountains across the valley while shading her eyes with her hand. Clodagh realized that Philippa had become distracted, and had not heard the ringing bell.

Upon closer questioning, the elderly and worried Sister Philippa confessed to Clodagh how her life was changing for the worse and that she had essentially forgotten her religious mission. She expressed her misgivings as she recalled repressed thoughts and emotions from her pre-convent life decades earlier. She was overcome by the uncontrollable, strong urgings and influences of the mountains on the horizon, and with the distractions of the surrounding beauty, exoticism, and atmosphere. She realized that she didn't care whether or not she was planting European vegetables for sustenance and nourishment in the foreign soil.

Sister Clodagh's own doubts about her faith and place in the Order flooded over her, and they both vowed to work hard together to fight against and deny the temptations and yearnings of their earthly life:

Sister Philippa: I used to forget everything in chapel. I used to feel light and happy and near God...I remember things before I joined our order. Things I wanted to forget. I never thought of them until now. I've been 21 years in the order, and now they come back to me. I think you can see too far. I look out there, and then I can't see the potato I'm planting. And after a bit, it doesn't seem to matter whether I plant it or not.
Sister Clodagh: It's this place with its strange atmosphere and new people. Stay with me tonight after chapel, and we will pray together. And work, Sister. Work hard. Work until you're too tired to think of anything else.

The palms of Sister Philippa's hands were covered in thick blisters, illustrating that hard physical work wasn't enough to keep her distracted from questioning her faith, and that the sublimation of her inner passions was breaking down.

Sister Clodagh's First and Second Flashbacks:

Similarly, the devout, self-righteous, stoic, pious and chaste Sister Clodagh (in her monochromatic nun's habit) was struggling to shake the unsettling memories of her past pre-convent life, and come to grips with her faith and ideals. Sexually-frustrated, she had repressed or sublimated a failed romance that she had left at home in Ireland, and as with Sister Philippa, the latent eroticism of the palace and high-altitude environment was beginning to corrupt, affect and seduce her. She was reminded and tormented by her past through a series of sense-stimulated memories, sounds and visions that jolted her sense of order and reason. An assault on her senses was beginning to test her own sanity - in the same way that the nuns' entire existence at the former brothel was teetering on the precarious edge of the cliff.

The first flashback, a happy escapist memory of her carefree life (and doomed romance) from years before, was sparked during a prayer session in the small chapel in the converted palace. A view of a brilliant blue sky through an open window triggered, through a slow dissolve when she closed her eyes, a distant sensual memory of waves on a sparkling lake during a romantic idyll she was having with Irish suitor Con (Shaun Noble) while fishing during "a grand day" in Scotland. The formerly-passionate, flame-haired, outdoorsy and adventurous heroine nostalgically remembered how Con was disgruntled that he had to remain in Ireland due to his status as the eldest son, and that he had money issues. When asked about getting away from their staid lives, she responded:

I don't want to go away. I want to stay here like this for the rest of my life.

The second flashbacked memory occurred back-to-back with the first after a brief pause. A single dog's barking brought back another sight of fox-hunting, with barking bloodhounds leading a group of horse-riders, including Sister Clodagh and Con, galloping on horseback across the green countryside and jumping over hedges.

The Arrival of the Old General's Nephew, the Young General:

The Young General (Sabu), the Old General's elegantly-dressed, bejeweled unbeguiling nephew of local royalty, came into view on a white pony, and disrupted the prayer session. Fanciful, charming and youthful, he presented himself to the Reverend Sisters. He spoke directly to Sister Clodagh and asked to be educated in the school. It was an unusual request since he would be the only post-adolescent male student in the school, although he was ambitious and eager to learn many European (western) subjects, including mathematics, history, poetry and languages. Sister Clodagh initially denied his request:

We only teach children and young girls....Convents don't teach men pupils...It's the custom. Convents are for girls. The brotherhoods are for men.

To argue further for his acceptance, he pointed behind him to a crucifix statue of Jesus on the cross and stated: "Jesus Christ was a man." The Sister corrected him: "He took the shape of a man." The insistent Young General vowed that he would remain steadfastly focused on his education - that would assist him in adopting Western culture and in particular, accepting the tenets of British imperialism.

But you don't need to count me as a man. I'm only interested in studious things.

He showed her his preferred timetable for studies, lasting from 5:00 am to 4:00 pm each day (i.e., "3-4 pm: Physics with the physical sister") - causing a slight chuckle from Sister Clodagh for his unintended innuendo.

[Note: However, the Young General was unaware that his libido, like the nuns' fortitude, would be tainted by the seductive forces inherent in the palace - now represented for him in the personhood of the provocative, wild and liberated lower-caste orphan girl Kanchi who would tempt his manhood and civility.]

Kanchi's Narcissistic Dance:

After voyeuristically watching the Young General through a lattice-work window, the restless young Kanchi (also ornamented in jewelry and brightly-colored clothing as he was) appeared in a close-up of her face with large green eyes. She was entranced by the new arrival and - with her handkerchief - began to perform a slow, sensuous and uninhibited Salome-like dance in one of the former bordello's painted rooms. She was a living representation of the concubines in the art-work - a reminder of the exotic past of the palace. Her deliberate, free-flowing and sexy Indian dance with her hips (and head) moving back and forth was exhibited in the empty space as she sashayed around and twirled in circles, causing her dress to billow up to reveal her legs. She also smiled and vainly admired an image of her own alluring self in a mirror on the wall.

[Note: This was the second instance of one of the characters selfishly looking at his/her reflection, previously, it was the worldly Old General.]

When the Young General was ushered into the room to wait there, she enticed him with her presence, fell at his feet to pick up her handkerchief, and snuck a look up at him. She also slyly watched him through the mirror, and then ran off coquettishly after giving him one last flirtatious glance at the door when one of the Sisters arrived.

Mr. Dean cautioned Sister Clodagh about the second new arrival, the foppish nephew: "Aren't you afraid with the young general that you've let a cuckoo into your nest?" She was doubtful that the Young General would pressure his uncle to get them to leave, or that he would be seduced by Kanchi from a lower caste level:

Sister Clodagh: She'd never dare. After all, he is a prince, and she is what she is.
Mr. Dean: Still, I expect she knows the story of the prince and the beggar maid.

[Note: The reference was to "The King and the Beggar Maid" - a medieval ballad about the unorthodox love at first sight between an African king and a beggar girl.]

The Holy Man:

Mr. Dean counted out 49 steps (or yards), leading to the location of the Holy Man, whom Sister Clodagh criticized for living within the 500 yard boundary line surrounding the grounds of the palace. Mr. Dean reminded her: "He was here first." Uneasy, she felt the silent pagan's presence - representative of the Eastern culture - was distracting to the nuns, and wanted him moved:

I find all these things very distracting...Yes, disturbing. This clear air, and the wind always blowing. And the mountain, and the holy man sitting there day in, day out. And the people coming to see him. They climb the path by the house, and they stop and sit and stare at us....I want you to ask the General to ask the Holy Man to move.

The British agent thought it would be improper, particularly because the Holy Man was related to the Old General - he was the General’s uncle who had served in the British army but had renounced his worldly pursuits and retreated into complete silence and contemplation of the mountains, where he was worshipped by the people as their "Holy Man":

It'd be a bit awkward for the General to turn out his own uncle....General Sir Krishna Rai, KCVO, KCSI, CMG. He has several foreign decorations too. He lent our general the money to buy this place. I've never heard him talk. They say he speaks perfect English. Several other European languages, too.

The mute Holy Man was always seated in his place under the tree: "People come miles to see him." Sister Clodagh remained disturbed and sighed: "Well, I really don't know what to do." Mr. Dean earnestly but contemptuously asked her: "What would Christ have done?" She shot a dagger-glance back at him.

The Young General's 'Black Narcissus':

The dandified Young General, adorned in a satin coat with emeralds, arrived by pony for his schooling in a classroom full of young girls, led by Sister Honey and Sister Ruth. He had brought his manual typewriter with him, and sat at a private desk. Sister Ruth presented him with another example of a useless lesson (symbolic of the entirely-failed mission to the locals) - requesting that he conjugate the impractical and hardly-ever used subjunctive of the French verb "S'asseoir" (meaning 'to seat oneself').

From the adjoining classroom, Kanchi leaned over the wall divider, closed her eyes and inhaled the intoxicating and overpowering scent of the young boy's titular 'Black Narcissus' perfume from his blue silk handkerchief, expressing complete sensual bliss and amorous obsession.

He described the bewitching scent to Sister Ruth who had sniffed it with distaste. It was a heady, foreign cologne expressing many traits - darkness, malignancy, mystery, self-love, nighttime, danger, and erotic exoticism:

Young General: Do you like it, Sister Ruth? It's called Black Narcissus. Comes from the army/navy stores in London.
Sister Ruth: Black Narcissus. I don't like scent at all.
Young General: Oh, Sister, don't you think it's rather common to smell of ourselves?

Sister Clodagh's Third Flashback:

While eating a communal meal, Sister Clodagh listened as her sister nuns, especially Sister Honey, frivolously and excitedly described the charming Young General's intoxicating and sensual presence in their midst:

- "Have you seen the young general today?...Emeralds. Beautiful emeralds. The deepest, most beautiful green I've ever seen."
- "Have you seen his coats? He must have a different one for every day of the year....Yesterday he had a coat the color of ripe corn, patterned with flowers and damask. His earrings were amethysts three inches long, and his rings were turquoise. Today, he's all jade and emeralds, and his coat is the most wonderful pattern of pale violet stripes, just like my grandmother's footstool."

The mere mention of the words 'grandmother's footstool' brought back a third flashbacked memory for Sister Clodagh. He recalled her own grandmother's emerald necklace in a case placed on a footstool, amidst family members in front of the cozy hearth of a roaring fireplace in Ireland. The sparkling necklace was promised to Clodagh (wearing a low-cut pale turquoise dress) by her Granny (Margaret Scudamore), and placed around her neck: "These emeralds are for you, my darling, when you marry." The red-haired beauty Clodagh, wearing red lipstick, rose and stood before a mirror - admiring the gleaming green jewels around her bare neck, and held up two matching emerald earrings.

She was summoned away when Con arrived for a date, and as she excitedly ran to the door, she almost forgot to remove her marital necklace. The reverie ended on an ominous note. After overhearing her parents ponder about their potential engagement from outside the room: "Oh, dear, I hope they get something settled by the winter," Clodagh rushed out the front door and disappeared (or was swallowed up) in the night's darkness, as she called out: "Where are you, Con?"

Sister Clodagh was brought back out of the darkness to the light of reality by words spoken by the distrusting Sister Ruth, who linked together the blackness of the perfume to the vanity of the Young General, and to the nuns' culturally blind, insensitive and 'narcissistic' mission to civilize the natives:

Sister Ruth: He said it was called Black Narcissus, and he got it at the Army and Navy stores. Black Narcissus. That's what I'm going to call him. It's a wonderful name for him. He's so vain, like peacock. Fine, black peacock.
(One of the Sisters): He's not black.
Sister Ruth: They all look alike to me.

In Sister Ruth's classroom, as the Young General struggled to conjugate a verb, he was distracted and lost concentration when the peeking visage of the passionately-obsessed, lascivious Kanchi, on her hands and knees, gazed up at him from beneath the room divider.

Winter-Time: Christmas - and Sister Clodagh's Fourth and Final Flashback:

At Christmas time, Sister Clodagh painted a watercolored Noel greeting card for Saint Faith. A dissolve took the scene to the chapel (with snow falling outside and the Sisters wearing grey mittens in the cold), where the nuns sang "The First Noel" Christmas carol hymn during a Christmas night service. The Young General and Mr. Dean, wrapped in a heavy fur coat, unexpectedly intruded into the chapel, where the possibly-drunken Dean knocked over a table - alerting everyone to his presence, and then Dean heartily and zealously joined in the singing with his booming male voice. A music page was turned to the next song, "Lullay My Liking."

Sister Clodagh's fourth and final flashback was invoked by the nostalgic thought of Christmas-caroling, when she was arm-in-arm with her suitor Con on a wintry night back in Ireland. He presented her with a small box, a Christmas present - a beautiful brooch. The thought intruded into Sister Clodagh's consciousness and she smiled, but then caught herself delighting in the thought and turned more solemn.

Sister Clodagh's Stern Reprimand of Mr. Dean:

When the service concluded shortly thereafter, Sister Clodagh extinguished the chapel's candles. Outside in the cold, the Young General entreated her with his thoughts on Christmas: "I hope you don't mind my coming tonight. I am very much interested in Jesus Christ." The conservative-thinkiing nun thought he was too "casual" in his statement, when Mr. Dean (who was listening) objected and offered his more frank and hostile assessment of her rigid view of compartmentalized relgious belief: "He should be casual and as much a part of life as your daily bread." She responded by ostracizing him for his views and demanding that he never visit again:

Sister Clodagh: How dare you come here like this! How dare you come to our service tonight! You're - you're unforgivable! You're objectionable when you're sober, and abominable when you're drunk!
Mr. Dean: I quite agree.
Sister Clodagh: If you have a spark of decency left in you, you won't come near us again!

As he rode away on a pony, he antagonistically sang and then laughed about the pleasure-denying life of a nun: "No, I won't be a nun. No, I cannot be a nun. For I am so fond of pleasure, I cannot be a nun." Sister Clodagh noticed a dark silhouetted shadow standing behind a curtain - witnessing the confrontation. She observed Sister Ruth run off.

The Seriously-Disturbed Sister Ruth:

Sister Clodagh summoned Sister Ruth into her office - to question her stability, physical condition, and frailty, but Sister Ruth resisted sharing her personal problems:

Sister Clodagh: I've been worried about you for some time. I feel that things are not right with you....You look so ill, and you've got so terribly thin. I know that you're trying to keep up for all our sakes, but I feel that you really must go in with Sister Briony and see the doctor.
Sister Ruth: (standing up and vehemently objecting) I shan't see the doctor! I'm perfectly well and right! You're just trying to make out that - (she paused and sat down) I didn't mean to be rude. I haven't been sleeping, that's all.
Sister Clodagh: If you haven't been sleeping, there must be some reason for it. Can't you tell me? Is something worrying you?

Distrustful of her rival Sister Clodagh who she thought was also competing for Mr. Dean's affection, she clammed up and refused to talk about her worries and concerns about the oppressive order. Clearly, she was losing her grip on sanity, and believed that everyone had despised her and didn't want her there. When Sister Clodagh brought up her preoccupation with Mr. Dean: "Don't you think you're letting things run away with you? I think you have let yourself fall into thinking too much of Mr. Dean," the camera moved from a close-up of Clodagh's agitated fingers grasping a pencil to a close-up view of Sister Ruth's disturbed and deranged face (highlighted by red circles around her eyes). Clodagh continued with a condemnation of Sister Ruth's frightening, neurotic and fascinated obsession with the male British agent, thereby subverting her vows:

Sister Clodagh: Sister, don't you realize what you're doing, what you're running the risk of losing in yourself? Sister, you must - I must make you see before it is too late.
Sister Ruth: (defiantly) All the same, I've noticed you're very pleased to see him yourself! (Ruth flashed a manic grin)
Sister Clodagh: (standing up with fierce anger) If that was in your mind, it's better said I think you're out of your senses! Listen to me. I don't know - I can't decide now what to make of you. I shall have to think, and I want you to think, too. As for Mr. Dean, in spite of his charm and kindliness, he is not a good man. You must take him for what he is and not try to glorify him into something he is not. When he came to chapel on Christmas night, he was drunk.

Sister Ruth was instructed to write a private letter to the Reverend Mother about her condition. She asked to be dismissed and insolently slammed the door behind her.

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