Occasionally a commercially viable artist’s most definitive work is his least commercially acceptable, and often his least accessible. And so it may be for Louis Malle’s 1975 film, “Black Moon.”
The term black moon like its better known counterpart blue moon is a reference to an extra new moon occurring within a given month, or nominal lunar cycle (whereas blue moon refers to the extra full moon.) In astrology, the new moon is considered a time of new beginnings, taking root in the unconscious before working its way into the “light of day.” Therefore the black moon is significant in that there is seemingly an additional cycle of beginning—but not really, as the term month refers to the lunar cycle—a division of one solar cycle into twelve lunar cycles—but does not actually encompass it. So in that sense black moon is a beginning at odds with acceptable beginnings, as well as a double dose of whatever sign is involved.
Louis Malle was a gifted director whose eclectic films ranged from “Murmur of the Heart” and “Lacombe Lucien” to “Atlantic City” and “My Dinner with Andre.” He seemed to go wherever his muse took him, which is always a good sign in an artist. “Black Moon” was released in 1975 to decidedly mixed reviews and quickly vanished into obscurity, save for its occasional resurrection on TMC and cable.
The main cast consists of four characters, three of them named Lily. Cathryn Harrison, who was sixteen at the time, is the ingénue Lily escaping (disguised as a boy) the war ravaging the cities and spilling into the countryside. She finds indifferent refuge with a family of sorts in the middle of nowhere. It is an odd war, a political statement, perhaps a bit heavy handed. From the little we see of the conflict, one side is better armed and trained, made up exclusively of professional male soldiers. The other side is made up of mostly young women who are clearly getting the worst of it.
Joe Dallesandro and Alexandra Stewart (soon to be Malle’s wife,) are a thirty something brother & sister, maybe husband & wife, both named Lily. They sing Wagner while they work and play but communicate telepathically—clearly how a child might perceive signals exchanged by adults. Therese Giehse in her final role (she died the year the film was released) plays the bedridden “old lady” who communicates telepathically with all three of the Lily’s, pidgenspeaks with an odd little mammal identified in the film as a rat, chats endlessly about the first Lily in her presence on a shortwave radio which buzzes and beeps. She also mocks and humiliates the first Lily and attempts to convince her that the unicorn Lily chases is an illusion. (The unicorn, on the other hand, does its best to convince Lily that the old lady is an illusion—the old despoiling the youthful illusions that sex will make everything grand and the illusion ridiculing the old.)
There are occasional “stills” meant to evoke or shock, such as a baby in a crib with sheathed daggers or a tree that bleeds while being pruned. There are talking animals, including the afore mentioned rat and unicorn. There are animals that are clearly phallic symbols—the unicorn, a millipede, and numerous garter snakes—all of which fascinate the first Lily. Animals either live within or enter the house at will through doors and windows left open, including a magnificent eagle. There are some bugs, several of which crawl on Lily. There are a host of frolicking naked children, whose numbers change often, who cavort with a sow and who start wearing clothes as they age—clearly a reference to innocence lost ala Genesis. There are blatant references to Lewis Carroll. There is a painting which portends the future…
Most of the cast, save the first Lily, seem to disappear and reappear at will. Lily vacillates between seeking shelter at any cost, to chasing the unicorn, to an unbridled general curiosity, to indignant temper tantrums (mostly as a response to the old lady’s goading.) For a while, the three women play like three magical and damaged fates, the maiden, the matron and the crone. The plot is quite vague, often absent altogether and clearly involves maturation. The outré is king, such as the disturbing scenes of the young suckling the old. The pace is breezy, sometimes hectic, usually lingering. And Lily does find her place in the scheme of things at last, although it is left to the audience to discern exactly what, if anything, is inherent in that last scene.
The film was shot in Malle’s own house on a 200 acre estate in the French countryside. It is a place of rustic magnificence, where untended fires blaze in every hearth, everything is spotless in spite of the animals and naked children running about, the views from adjacent windows vary enormously and soldiers from the war without who stray onto the property are buried in a common grave that awaits them.
It is easy to call the film “flawed,” but given its date, it probably isn’t. Older classics, like “Metropolis” for instance, have many more glaring flaws within their own internal logic and presentations. Often called a Freudian Alice in Wonderland, “Black Moon” is that and more. Equal parts allegory and dream, it plays with its audience as much as its heroine, which does not often sit well in a consumer society that knows what it wants and autocratically resists being part of the show, demanding everyone else willingly enter its own destructive vision as both partner and slave.
“Black Moon” is not nearly as tight or surreal as, say 1961’s “Last year in Marienbad,” or some of David Lynch’s later material, which was surely influenced by "Black Moon." There is something compelling about films that are aimed as much at the unconscious as the conscious mind without spewing endless propaganda, regardless of their flaws. Films of that nature can teach us as much about our own internal mechanisms as the world without—teach without burdensome explanation or fading logic to destroy the mystery—a frightening proposition for anyone who is certain he already knows, anyone who really doesn’t want to know.
The perfect gift for the young surrealist on your Christmas list, available from The Criterion Collection, Amazon.com and you local library.
© Paul L.Bates 2012