Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made many films, but the two works that have come to define them are Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). These films are very different yet they share a lush, perfectionist aesthetic that elevates their dramatic stories to unmatched sensory heights.
In Black Narcissus, a group of English nuns -- including Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, and a beautifully spooky Kathleen Byron -- move to the Himalayas to start a convent. The exotically and erotically decorated building they occupy was once home to a harem. The lingering spirt of fleshy desire invades the minds of the nuns, clouding their thoughts and causing them to do unpious things like: plant flowers instead of food; dream of past romances; and most importantly, lust after a fancy land owner who rides a miniature pony. The end result, at least for one nun, is madness.
Depictions of tempted nuns have a long, and somewhat sordid, history. Given the film's age and the prestige of its creators, Black Narcissus, which was adapted from the novel of the same name, is downright subversive. The film is melodrama without restraint. You can call it "melodrama plus" with the "plus" signifying lush exoticism, sublimated eroticism and bit of gothic horror. Martin Scorsese described certain scenes in the final act as a cross between Disney and a horror film. He was right.
Powell, Pressburger, and crew never went anywhere near the mountains; the entire movie was shot at and near Pinewood studios. However, the film really does look like it was filmed in the Himalayas. Clever art direction by Alfred Junge employed exacting sets, matte paintings, and miniatures to sustain the illusion with exacting accuracy. Most modern CG doesn't look those good.
For anyone considering to get the DVD or Blu-Ray, Jack Cardiff's glorious 3-strip Technicolor cinematography tips the scales heavily towards the latter format. Criterion is slowly becoming an essential source for rediscovering the glories of Technicolor cinema in the high-def age. The company's Blu-Ray of Antonioni's Red Desert -- which wasn't shot in 3-strip Technicolor, but was processed using the Technicolor dye transfer process -- was beautiful. The Black Narcissus Blu-Ray doesn't quite match that quality of either that transfer or The Red Shoes, which is the best, but it is still stunning.
The aspect ratio is 1.33:1 so there are larger than normal black bars at left and right. Audio is uncompressed mono. Extras are extensive, including: a video introduction and featurette with Bertrand Tavernier; an audio commentary with Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese recorded in 1988; a documentary on Jack Cardiff's cinematography called Painting with Light; and a short documentary about the creation of Black Narcissus.