Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus is one of the most beautiful three-strip Technicolor films ever made — an opulent, grand work of art that is touched with madness perhaps more than any other film from The Archers. It was bound to end up as an early Blu-ray reissue from Criterion, and thankfully, it came sooner rather than later.
Black Narcissus is based on the novel by Rumer Godden, whose The River would be adapted into a film by Jean Renoir several years later. But whereas Renoir’s film was the first color film to be shot entirely on location in India, the majestic Himalayan setting of Black Narcissus was created entirely in the studio. The result is an environment more otherworldly than artificial, with Alfred Junge’s art direction and superlative matte paintings and Jack Cardiff’s cinematography creating a convincing, if heightened, world.
Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clodagh, a nun charged with opening a new convent in the Himalayan wilderness. Sister Clodagh is young, but self-confident, and along with four other nuns, attempts to help the people of the village where the new convent will be placed. Her confidence is misplaced, and the endeavor is not nearly as uncomplicated as Sister Clodagh imagined, with almost everything about the new location coming into direct opposition to the chasteness and simplicity of the sisters.
The convent building was formerly a harem house, and among the land’s inhabitants are a young Indian girl, Kanchi (Jean Simmons), who exudes sensuality, and a ruddy English hunter named Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Sister Clodagh allows her surroundings to visibly frustrate her, but she keeps to her task, even if daydreams of her pre-cloistered life reveal longings deep inside of her.
Less able to keep her desires at bay is Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who becomes consumed with passion for Mr. Dean and jealousy of Sister Clodagh. She emerges as one of the great horror film characters in the film’s climax, despite the fact that the film only fleetingly explores that side.
The film explores the efforts of a people to interact with a culture and a world fundamentally different than their own–one they do not understand. The film is certainly a commentary on British Imperialism, but it is also about differences and repressions on a much more human level. In the emotionally and erotically charged environment that Powell and Pressburger create, the attempts to maintain a buttoned-down temperament are decreasingly successful, resulting in a final climax of horrifying passion.
Black Narcissus is a remarkable film, expertly constructed by a pair of filmmaking masters who could let their subject matter seemingly go off the rails (their The Red Shoes does the same), but remain in control throughout.
The Blu-ray Disc
Black Narcissus is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Three-strip Technicolor benefits perhaps more than any other kind of classic film from a high definition upgrade, and as Black Narcissus is almost unequalled in that field, it looks stunning on Blu-ray. The intricacy and splendor of the matte paintings is enhanced and Cardiff’s explosions of color — a bed of wildflowers, Byron’s red lipstick and dress, lush green plant life — are as a close a replication of Technicolor richness that a digital format can likely produce. Colors are stable and consistent throughout, the picture retains a very nice film-like grain and contrast levels are excellent, as can be seen especially in the white nun habits contrasting with faces. It’d be hard to come up with a single complaint about this fantastic Blu-ray upgrade.
The audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural mix that is very clean and free from any bothersome hissing or distractions of any kind. Dialogue and music are clear and interact with one another just fine.
The Criterion re-release expands on the rather thin supplements from their 2001 DVD edition of the film, adding three extras and subtracting one. New are two video pieces from French director Bertrand Tavernier — one servicing as an introduction to the film and the other looking deeper into it and Powell’s career. Also new is a nearly 30-minute retrospective that mostly deals with production history and includes interviews with cast and crew such as Cardiff and Byron.
Carried over from the previous releases is a featurette on Cardiff’s cinematography and an audio commentary featuring Powell and Archers admirer Martin Scorsese. The commentary track was recorded for the film’s laserdisc release in 1988, and is unfortunately, not as exciting as it sounds. Powell and Scorsese were recorded separately and both allow for huge gaps between comments, resulting in a commentary that’s only present for about half of the film.
Missing from this release is a stills gallery of production photos. The booklet includes an essay by Kent Jones.
The Bottom Line
Black Narcissus is one of the best Blu-rays Criterion has yet released and it’s a no-brainer purchase along with Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of The Red Shoes.