DIRECTED BY: Louis Malle
FEATURING: Cathryn Harrison, Therese Giehse, Alexandra Stewart, Joe Dallesandro
PLOT: A 15-year old girl flees a shooting war between the sexes and ends up at a farm estate inhabited by a bedridden old woman, a brother and sister both (like her) named “Lily,” a gang of naked children who herd pigs and sheep, and a unicorn.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If we were making a list composed only of European-style arthouse surrealism, Black Moon would easily make the List. Here at 366, Black Moon has to fight for its space not only with other Buñuel-based concoctions, but also with the mutant species of crazed B-movies, the maddest of midnight movies, and intentional and unintentional oddities of every stripe; the competition makes this (admittedly very weird) experimental art movie a more marginal choice.
COMMENTS: Mercurial auteur Louis Malle (Au Revoir les Enfants) had dabbled in light absurdity with 1960’s Zazie dans le Metro, but audiences weren’t prepared for the sudden onslaught of full-on surrealism he unleashed in 1975 with Black Moon. The movie concerns a young girl’s flight from an absurd world—where camo-clad men line up female prisoners of war and execute them, with gas mask-wearing ladies returning the favor to their male captives—into a totally irrational one. With Malle behind the camera, we know that this will be a deliberate, quiet, beautifully-shot film. Indeed, there are lots of long atmospheric shots and no dialogue at all for the first fifteen minutes, until Lily, the fleeing girl, finally comes upon the villa hidden deep in the woods and meets its insane inhabitants. Her adventures are loosely inspired by that old weird warhorse, “Alice in Wonderland.” There’s a pig /baby that may be an explicit reference to “Pig and Pepper,” and the characters Lily meets have the casually insulting demeanors of the denizens of Wonderland: the bedridden old lady says she looks “stupid… and she has no bosom, no bosom at all!’ In a Caroll-esque exchange, the unicorn accuses her of being “mean” for trampling some daisies (who, disturbingly, scream), while the myth is munching down on the selfsame flowers. But don’t let the Alice references confuse you into supposing Malle’s film is a light absurdist comedy; although there are funny moments (as when Lily’s panties keep magically falling around her ankles while she’s trying to keep up a dignified conversation), Moon frequently shows its darker, adult side. The old lady dies and is resurrected when her daughter breastfeeds her. A chicken eats the heart of a corpse. Joe Dallesandro decapitates an eagle. Black Moon warbles back and forth between humor and nightmare, with lots of pauses for abstruse meditation, and it never nails down a tone; that lack of consistency may be intentional, but it doesn’t make the movie easy to get a hold of, or to fall in love with. Pure, unstructured surrealism is tough to pull off at feature length—even Buñuel and Lynch rarely attempted it—and, as exceptional a filmmaker as he is, Malle doesn’t prove ready to step right into the dream genre. Black Moon is a movie with some great individual visions—breastfeeding the unicorn, the concerto for nude children—not a completely immersive and enchanting experience. It’s uneven, but it’s definitely worth a look for fans of the outrageously, unapologetically weird. It makes you wonder how wonderful it would have been if every great director had indulged himself by unleashing one completely surreal film on the world (I’d love to see what Hitchcock would have come up with). Cathryn Harrison is very pretty, petulant and appealing as the star; it’s surprising that her future acting career involved mainly small-screen roles in made-for-BBC movies. Wisely cast as a mute, Joe Dallessandro adds another notch to his cool belt by becoming the only actor to work for both Andy Warhol and Louis Malle. After the commercial (and, to a large extent, critical) failure of Black Moon, Malle would return to relatively mundane subject matter with the arthouse hits Pretty Baby and Atlantic City, before unleashing another (this time, reality-based) experiment with the literal conversation piece My Dinner With Andre.
After an uneventful theatrical release Black Moon quickly became a seldom seen curiosity in Malle’s canon. In 2011 The Criterion Collection selected it for release, together with Malle’s second weirdest film, Zazie dans le Metro. The Criterion edition features the exceptional technical quality you expect; extras are light, however, including only the original trailer (which is surprisingly uninspiring), a booklet essay, and ten minutes of contemporaneous insights from the auteur courtesy of the French television program “Pour le Cinéma.”
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)