209. BLACK MOON (1975)

“I see it as a strange voyage to the limits of the medium, or maybe my own limits.”–Louis Malle on Black Moon

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Cathryn Harrison, Therese Giehse, , Alexandra Stewart

PLOT: A young woman is driving a car during a shooting war between the sexes. Escaping from a checkpoint where male soldiers are executing females, she finds refuge at an old farmhouse inhabited by a batty old woman, a mute brother and sister, a band of nude animal-herding children, and a unicorn. Initially rejected by the chateau’s residents, she gradually finds herself becoming part of this strange alternate society.

Still from Black Moon (1975)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although Louis Malle had dabbled in light surrealism before with the whimsical Zazie dans le Metro (1960), there was nothing in the respected director’s then-recent oeuvre (mostly documentaries and historical pieces like 1974’s Vichy drama Lacombe, Lucien) to prepare his audience for the bizarreness of Black Moon. Sven Nykvist won a Caesar for his cinematography, but the film was mainly a commercial and critical failure, and quickly lapsed from circulation.
  • Black Moon was a transitional work in Malle’s move from France to the USA. He shot the film in France, at his own estate near Cahors, but in the English language, with a British, American and Canadian actor in the cast. After this movie, the director went to America where he scored a series of critical successes with Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre.
  • Joyce Buñuel, Malle’s co-writer, was ‘s daughter-in-law.
  • Therese Giehse, who plays the bedridden woman, died before the movie was released, and Black Moon is dedicated to her. Malle credited her with partly inspiring the idea for Black Moon by suggesting he make a movie without dialogue (although the eventual script did have dialogue, it is sparse and often nonsensical).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Appropriately for a dream-movie, the indelible image is an imaginary one; it’s the transgressive event you see transpiring in your mind’s eye the minute after the film officially ends on a provocative freeze-frame.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Gender genocide; portly unicorn; resurrection by breast milk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Black Moon concerns a young girl’s flight from an absurd world—where camo-clad men line up female prisoners of war and execute them, while the gas mask-wearing ladies returning the favor to their male captives—into a totally insane one. The movie is an unexpected assay of the irrational from nouvelle vague auteur Louis Malle, and although it’s congenitally uneven, it makes you wonder how wonderful it would have been if every master director had indulged himself by unleashing one unabashedly surreal film on the world.


Original trailer for Black Moon

COMMENTS: A frayed fairy tale set in no time or place in particular, Black Moon is perhaps as interesting for who made it as it is for its screaming flowers, decapitated eagles and sublimated sensuality. Louis Malle, a respected Palme d’Or winning director who had not previously dabbled in Surrealism, suddenly, in 1975, decided to make a feature film in the style of Luis Buñuel, mixed with a heavy dose of “Alice in Wonderland.” The result was more of a curio than a flop; critics were mixed and both the general public, and Malle’s fanbase, were disinterested. There was a critical sense that Malle may not have been the right man for this material: Pauline Kael spoke for this viewpoint when she opined that the director was “temperamentally unsuited to the meandering, enigmatic, post-apocalypse fantasy he attempts here; he’s a sane man trying to make a crazy man’s film…There’s no obsessive quality in the disordered vision.” Years later Fernando F. Croce echoed Kael’s sentiment: “[Buñuel’s] instinctual ferocity all but eludes Malle, who can only tastefully arrange his shots to appear to rise from the subconscious… the fury of L’Âge d’Or doesn’t come easily to a mellow bourgeois.” Even Malle himself had doubts, calling his own film “sometimes clumsy.”

After my first viewing of Black Moon, I concurred. It seemed to me that Malle’s classical art house sensibilities didn’t jibe well with Carrollian nonsense, and his surrealism was often strained. The film appeared more of an interesting experiment and a curiosity from a director deliberately venturing outside his comfort zone. But certain images—the shaggy unicorn, staring at Lily and licking its lips in those final moments—stuck with me, and the longer the movie fermented in my brain, the more I liked it. Parts have the staying power of a good (or bad) dream. The movie’s downsides come from occasionally over-languid pacing, and the repetitiveness of the nonsense bits, leading to some tedious interludes. Malle himself was aware of these issues, and had wondered whether he should have distilled the movie into a one-hour cut. He should have; the general rule is the stranger the film, the shorter it needs to be (most of the canonical Surrealist films came in at under an hour; Un Chien Andalou was a brisk and potent 17 minutes). But, baby fat aside, when Black Moon is on, it’s on.

Black Moon begins with a scene of a badger, sniffing about on a lonesome asphalt road, who is run down by protagonist Lily’s car. Fleeing the atrocities of human conflict, Lily runs into a herd of orphaned sheep (their shepherd’s corpse hangs from a nearby noose). After escaping a firefight at a masculine military checkpoint, she takes time out to lounge in the grass to spy on phallic snakes and millipedes. Then, she catches  sight of a unicorn and is lured to the farm where most of the film takes place; on her way there, she sees a gang of naked children running gleefully alongside an enormous hog. The chateau itself is full of beasts: piglets in the kitchen, a cat on the piano, snakes in the drawers. A chicken pecks at the heart of a corpse. A painting on the old lady’s bedroom wall depicts a barbarian slicing a bird in half, and her son later brings that scene to life. At dawn, the farm’s sheep and turkeys spontaneously queue in curiously tiers in front of the house for an oddly-posed postcard shot from dreamland.

Why so many animals, you say? Interesting that you should ask. I don’t know the answer (and, probably, neither did Malle, who was candid about not understanding his own film). But “Alice in Wonderland” was full of animals as well, and creamy Cathryn Harrison is Alice in adolescence. Pale, petulant, and pretty, the young actress is led from her world of British propriety into a world of Continental animalism not by a white rabbit, but by a shabby unicorn (“in my books, unicorns are slim and white,” she complains, sounding just like Carroll’s fastidious young heroine). The pig in a high chair is an explicit reference to the “Pig and Pepper” chapter of “Alice,” and the characters Lily meets have the casually insulting demeanors of the denizens of Wonderland. Describing Lily to her unseen ham radio correspondent, the bedridden old lady says “I think she’s really very stupid” (Carroll’s Duchess was more diplomatic, only sneering “you don’t know much, and that’s a fact”). Speaking of the old lady, and of talking animals, which we weren’t, the old lady talks to a big-eared rat, who talks back to her in a series of squeaks only the two of them can decipher.

Of course, in Wonderland the animals never die; here, one is squashed by a Citroën in the first two minutes. But death has no sting in Black Moon; at least, not in the protected grounds of the estate, as opposed to the outside world where the battles of sex rages. As in “Alice,” no matter how insane things get in this alternate Wonderland, the heroine is never in fear. Lily shrugs off every insult, injury or indignity with little more than annoyance. Malle could easily have let these strange events drift into nightmares, but like Alice, Lily rarely experiences any emotions besides curiosity and frustration. When a movie completely breaks with the bonds of logic, only the characters’ faces tell us how we are supposed to feel. In INLAND EMPIRE, reaction shots of Laura Dern watching prostitutes break into a dance number (a weird, but not necessarily alarming, event) show uncomprehending fear. Harrison’s expressions are far more subdued, sometimes baffled but (almost) never terrified. This clues us in that this dream is not supposed to be a nightmare; although thanks to the unpredictability of dreams, it always keeps the possibility of horror in reserve.

But if there is no terror, there is definitely tension, and it comes from Lily’s uncertainty and anxiety about her newfound identity as a woman. The scene where the old lady laughs at her as her “bloomers” keep falling around her ankles is a dream humiliation ritual all of us are familiar with in some variation. Lily is literally not big enough for her britches. But she is growing.  As she flees the war, she begins spontaneously bleeding; from the nose, it’s true, but subtext is subtext. At her first meeting with the old lady, the shrew the girl to her unseen radio correspondent: “bosom! She has no bosom! No bosom at all!” Yet, later the old woman will appreciate Lily’s small bosom, after the farm’s sexually mature woman (Alexandra Stewart) demonstrates how to use it. If nothing else about Black Moon is clear, this much should be: the main character’s journey is from deliberate asexuality to fully confident femininity. She begins the film hiding her sexuality under an androgynous trenchcoat and fedora, and ends up lying in the place of the chateau’s matron as an explicitly maternal figure.

Lily’s (Cathryn Harrison’s) sexuality is a troubling feature of Black Moon. The fifteen-year old actress has two topless scenes, her white blouse is constantly unbuttoned, and she gets groped by creepy Joe Delassandro. Malle goes right up against the line of child exploitation here; he does not cross it, but I believe he is deliberately provocative in exploring Lily’s burgeoning sexuality. Nothing Harrison is required to do in Black Moon is thematically inappropriate, but what is strange about the whole affair is the choice of theme. Malle considered Black Moon an “intimate” and personal movie, and drew upon his own dreams in creating it. But a girl’s sexual coming-of-age seems like a strange subject to fascinate a middle-aged man. Of course, this is not the first or last time Malle considered such subjects; the even-younger Zazie deals with a pedophile predator in Zazie dans la Metro, and Malle would court much greater controversy four years later with 12-year old Brooke Shields’ nude scenes in Pretty Baby. To be clear, there is no hint of pedophilia anywhere in Louis Malle’s biography (he was sleeping with an actress in Black Moon‘s cast, but it was his long-term girlfriend Alexandra Stewart). Nor is Black Moon a salacious movie to appeal to pedophiles (unless they are also weirdophiles). But I do think that Malle addresses the adolescent sexuality taboo purposefully, with transgressive intent; and that the forbidden (to him as the artist, not to Lily as the protagonist) erotic subtext here is a large part of what gives the film its mysterious power. It is strange that many of the weirdest movies about a young female’s awakening sexuality are made by men (see also Valerie and Her Week of Wonders). Tawdry speculation aside, perhaps part of what motivates these men is fascination with the other; what is more alien and mysterious to a man then the commonplace mechanics of female sexuality?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie evokes the dream state without once resorting to the use of fuzzy filters, slow-motion photography or even lap dissolves…  baffling and beautiful and occasionally very funny.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…weird surrealist fantasy… a logic is there, even if its reference point is jabberwocky.”–Tom Milne, Time Out

“As satire and as surrealism, Black Moon is curiously simplistic while also maddeningly obtuse.”–Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Black Moon (1975)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Black Moon (1975) – The Criterion Collection – The trailer and Ginette Vincendeau’s essay on the film

Black Moon (9175) – Overview – There is little here compared to TCM’s usual cult movie entries, but Leonard Maltin’s essay gathers many direct quotes from Malle and Michael Atkinson chips in with an appreciation

LIST CANDIDATE: BLACK MOON (1975) – This site’s original review of Black Moon

DVD INFO: In 2011 The Criterion Collection selected the seldom-seen Black Moon for release (buy). The Criterion edition features the exceptional technical quality you expect; extras are light, however, including only the uninspiring original trailer (essentially just the first two minutes of the film), a booklet essay, some stills, and ten minutes of contemporaneous insights from the auteur courtesy of the French television program “Pour le Cinéma.” There is also the option to watch the film dubbed into French.

The Blu-ray release (buy) contains the same features.

4 thoughts on “209. BLACK MOON (1975)”

  1. Curious cheapskates like me will also find this on the Roku channel called Cryptic TV, a haven for some odd and obscure movies of various stripes.

    1. Yeah, I thought it rather odd to find anything by Louis Malle on that particular channel. They tend more toward ’80s direct to video horror moves on VHS and the like.

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