Black Narcissus: Desire, Faith, and Death

Nuns are hot and dangerous!

If there’s one thing you think about when thinking about nuns, it’s sex appeal, right?

Okay, maybe not, but in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, it’s kind of hard to NOT think about it. The film, from beginning to end, is suffused with sex, with desire, with temptation, and a little murder…in the name of sex.

I touched on the sex of Black Narcissus a little bit in my discussion with Ashley, but there’s so much to the repression and tension that it’s deserving of its own piece.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), on getting her new assignment running St. Faith, is warned about Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Dean is the stereotypical ruggedly handsome man; dark skin, ruffled locks, and a confidence about him that is understandably swoon-worthy. Clodagh’s Mother Superior knows the temptation she’s about to face. But, it’s with Sister Ruth that the real trouble lies.

Although Clodagh is tempted by Dean, or more precisely, what Dean represents, it is Sister Ruth who takes it to the next level. Through flashbacks Clodagh struggles with reconciling her life before the convent and her life within it, while Ruth gives in wholly to her sexual desires. We see it throughout the film, starting innocuously, then descending into madness.

Erotically ringing a bell. Yeah, I said erotically.

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Sneaking a peek.

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Voyeurism and jealousy.

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Plotting?

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Seeing red at not being the object of desire.

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Becoming un-hindered desire.

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Like St. Faith itself, Sister Ruth is on the precipice. With the addition of Clodagh and Dean, it takes only a small push for her to go over the edge, literally and figuratively. We see Ruth attempt to murder Clodagh by pushing her off the cliff, but Clodagh fights and struggles for her life, as she does with her faith. It is Ruth whose struggle is brief before succumbing to desire and death.

Temptation is a major theme in Black Narcissus, but it isn’t just Ruth and Clodagh who are tempted. Dean is also tempted, and he shows it by his naughty little jokes from time to time. He sees that they are beautiful women; he’s no monk, but he needs to have the discipline, however difficult it may be.

This doesn’t mean that Ruth’s surrender makes her weak; it just makes her human, and we are desirous creatures. We desire beautiful things, even when we can’t have them. In some cases, especially when we can’t have them. Ruth is desire personified, and sometimes desire works against us.

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