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Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus

By Norman Buckley • November 19th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
General Film Distributors

Release date: May 26th, 1947
Running time: 100 minutes

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Rumer Godden
Composer: Brian Easdale

Cast: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, Jean Simmons, David Farrar, Flora Robson

Black Narcissus

“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” ~ Shakespeare

There’s an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for some time. It’s hard to articulate, but it’s about the importance of place in our psychology, and the degree to which it defines us and gives context to our actions.

My father Ernest Buckley has been gone for over twenty years. I still dream about him though, and I often dream of the house where I grew up—a house he designed. My dad liked to build things—he was an architect and engineer. Our backyard had a series of rock walls that he built. Trellises ran along the top of the walls, covered with ivy. On many summer days and evenings, throughout my childhood, I’d lie in a hammock strung between two of these large rock walls, or I’d play in a large stone sandbox he built for me. Our backyard was the place I felt most myself—the arena of my playing and dreaming.

Now many years later, I frequently find my thoughts going back to my house and my backyard—it lingers in my memory with more specific definition than places I saw just last week. My childhood home defines an ineffable aspect of me that gives meaning to much of my present work.

In his book The Architecture Of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes

“There is nothing preternaturally sweet or homespun about the moods embodied in domestic spaces. These spaces can speak to us of the somber as readily as they can of the gentle. There is no necessary connection between the concepts of home and of prettiness; what we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to. As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us.” ¹

Black Narcissus

Likewise we create films, to keep a record of what matters to us. And films often create psychological states through the use of place. When I think about any specific film that’s had meaning for me, it’s almost always an image that comes to mind–no matter how clever the dialogue, it is the images that linger, that shape my feelings–and oftentimes it’s the place that the characters inhabit that shape that image, and my psychological response to it.

When Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus crosses my mind, it’s the image of a nun–dressed in white, standing on the edge of a cliff–that emerges from my memory. It’s an image both pleasing and vertiginous. It evokes for me the themes of the movie—commitment to spiritual principles as a balancing act—the hard rock of principle against the green valley of desire, the struggle of spirit and the flesh, the high and the low. The movie is full of images that make me feel that struggle—tracking shots of a nun moving through a room against a mural of lovers and nude women; the small figures of human beings against the enormity of the mountains Black Narcissusaround them; dissolves and cuts that capture the nature of memory and loss—a woman, thinking of her youth, in a place she loved, then fighting the memory and the loss it represents.

Black Narcissus is a remarkable achievement and it’s the architecture of the film that defines the experience for me. There’s symmetry to the compositions, and a density of detail, that reinforce the ideas on a visceral level.

David Kehr wrote beautifully about the film:

“Powell builds Black Narcissus as a series of moods created through space and color. He contrasts the boxy interiors and blank walls of the British colonial offices with the curved, multi-levelled, spatially indefinite chambers of the old palace. British certainty and sterility cedes more and more to Eastern mysticism and sensuality; the sister in charge of the vegetable garden can’t help but plant a crop of flowers instead, their exploding primary colors providing a dizzying contrast with the black and white habits of the nuns. Gentle, green hillsides—reminiscent of the Scottish landscapes we see in Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks—suddenly turn into vertiginous canyons when viewed from another angle. The ground literally opens beneath the feet of the characters, inviting them to take the plunge—to abandon their twin faiths, in God and the British Empire, and turn themselves over to more ancient and dangerous powers.”²

As I continue to work as a director I find my focus has shifted more and more to the spaces that the characters inhabit. One could say that it’s the actor’s job to exist in the character, and it’s the writer’s job to create the story and to give the actors the words to speak, and it’s primarily the director’s job to position the characters and story in a space that creates the emotional effect. How does one determine the audience’s point of view and where? Does one use a medium or wide shot, a tracking shot, or a close shot; a horizon line, the sky, a simple room, color or not, or a high-angle looking down upon a character standing on a ledge ringing a bell, like the nun in Black Narcissus? What story is being told and what are the different effects that the story allows one to find in its environment? As the director Robert M. Young, one of my mentors, used to say to me—“Where’s the story? Put the camera there.” This is my maxim when I direct.


  • [1]Alain de Botton The Architecture Of Happiness (2007), Penguin
  • [2]Dave Kehr Black Narcissus at The Criterion Collection

As much as possible, every image should tell a story. If there are people in the frame, their relative positioning tells a story—are they facing each other or away from one another, separated by distance or touching each other? If there are no people, their absence tells another story. If I were to make a film of my own life, the story would start with me sitting next to the rock walls of my backyard—they represent the foundations of my imagination, ideas one upon the next, similar to the construction of the wall, stone by stone.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my dad, standing before the walls he built, next to rose bushes he planted, with one of our dogs and one of our cats. The picture tells a story—the story of a guy who loved to build, who loved to plant, who loved animals. He built spaces that inspired the imagination of his family, particularly this son, and those spaces still exist in my inner world, as vital as many of the films I love.

 Black Narcissus

Norman Buckley

Norman Buckley

Norman is a television director and editor known for his work on shows such as Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, The Lying Game, Melrose Place, 90210, Chuck and The OC. He currently teaches part-time at UCLA, in addition to editing and directing.

You can find more of Norman’s work at his website and blog, and he’s on Twitter too – @norbuck.

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