Black Moon

(France//West Germany - 1975)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Cathryn Harrison, Therese Giehse, Alexandra Stewart, Joe Dallesandro
Genre: Fantasy/Sci-Fi/War
Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle, Joyce Bunuel, Ghislain Uhry
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Composer: -

Every now and then a movie starts with the director seeming to have such a masterful grasp on his medium you feel certain it'll be a classic if only he can manage to develop it into anything. It takes but a minute to see that Sven Nykvist's cinematography is as wonderful as ever, his fantastic closeups of nature bringing forth the texture of the various animals and insects. The experimental soundtrack consisting largely of periphery, seemingly random sounds – artillery, two way radio, the aforementioned forest creatures – is equally intriguing, creating moods though their sources rarely have a function beyond that. But alas, while Louis Malle's surrealistic sci-fi is never predictable or banal, and the lack of verbalization – animals speak more than humans and flowers show more emotion than either – is perpetually compelling, the fact that the film leaves everyone simply scratching their head renders it nearly as middling as it is enthralling and stimulating.

Malle hasn't created a vicious little puzzle like our modern day Alain Resnais knockoffs, but rather a series of linear pieces that repeatedly and individually address your senses and emotions despite the fact they aren't meant to fit together. Malle is known for trusting emotions more than ideas, and for better or worse, this approach makes the film somewhat unique. On one hand appearing all to straightforward to be a dream - Nykvist's compositions may be painterly but contain the precise realistic detail of National Geographic - it is ultimately up to the viewer to decide if they are moved by the individual scenes enough that the random no grand scheme format works for them.

Luis Bunuel's daughter-in-law Joyce penned the screenplay, including a few homages to her father-in-law's early surrealist works Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'or, and there is certainly some similarity between Bunuel's classics and Malle's film. Malle has always been intrigued by aberrant behavior, but in a film such as Lacombe Lucien the framework of non judgmental observation allowed us to form our own opinions. As despicable as the eponymous teen often was, the film is highly successful because Malle removes his own commentary toward Lucien's actions, focusing on the difficult task of examining human nature as a whole rather than taking the easy out of pinning the guilt on one child gone astray. In Black Moon, we have plenty of imagination to spice the world up the basic human shortcomings depicted, but in the grand scheme of things, we can't really see where Malle is going. As the audience is simply confused by the characters actions, Malle often seems to simply be shocking us as Bunuel was. While in Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou we knew the scenes weren't adding up due to being purposely unconnected, the difference between Andalou and Black Moon is in Andalou we understood some were very specific targets while in Black Moon, Malle refuses to narrow things down to blaming leaders, organizations, or institutions. It is, I suppose simply, the state of a world that has been at war for far too long.

Perhaps it's merely the distancing technique of constantly keeping us in the shoes of the main character that prevents the film from ever being straightforward. The absurd world of eccentrics has rules, they simply are never clear to the main character Lily (Cathryn Harrison, granddaughter of Rex), and thus we share the perplexity of this outsider who has created or at least stumbled into a new world as a way to escape her old world. The film is certainly one of the most successful at mirroring the stars quagmire in its audience. It doesn't condescend to us because we are equally bewildered, like Lily we are always trying to unearth the key, which makes Black Moon somewhat maddening since, while it delivers enough symbolism to keep Freud and Jung masturbating for weeks, it rarely seems anything but impenetrable.

Something scary begins to occur, almost imperceptibly, as Lily uses her vivid imagination to create this dream world to escape the post apocalyptic war of the sexes. At first she sees the insanity of her new prison, filmed in Malle's country manor, a seemingly bourgeois estate owned by a bedridden matron (Therese Giehse) who communicates with a rat and feeds from the breast of her own daughter (Alexandra Stewart) where centipedes, snakes, sheep, magpies, and naked feral children run amok. As time passes, equally as imperceptible, we begin to go along with every form of madness because it becomes everyday madness. We are numbed by the ordinariness, how “normal” it all becomes, just as normal as Lily's old world of men killing women and vice versa. The main difference between Lily and the audience is we're worse for being transfixed at staring into the girl's perpetually half-buttoned blouse.

Many of Malle's films – Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe Lucien, Pretty Baby – deal with an adolescent's self-maturation. Black Moon is something of Alice in Wonderland's sexual maturation. Lily's journey takes her from budding innocent to motherly nourisher. As always, Malle is one of cinema's great provocateurs, showing Lily learning to breast feed the old lady and ending with her about to extend her duties to the unicorn, who, in many ways, seems more similar to her than the old lady's mute son Brother Lili (Andy Warhol favorite Joe Dallesandro) as the unicorn is the only one that speaks her language.

Black Moon may be a long incoherent dream, but that's it's beauty as much as it's downfall. It dares to, in a sense, simply film whatever the mind conjures. I wish more films had its ambition, and even if you could say the wheels are largely just spinning after the first third, in and of itself, almost every scene leaves an indelible impression, and I believe that's what Malle was shooting for. It's a WTF film if there every was one, but it's unforgettable in a lot more positive ways than negative.

One can debate the quality of Louis Malle's various films, but it's hard to argue that he wasn't one of the most versatile directors, delving into every genre from documentary to film noir and exploring most of life's taboos in an effort to try to figure out the meaning of it all. Not long after he made this visionary fantasy where half of what dialogue exists is unintelligible, he made My Dinner With Andre, arguably the greatest example of the power of superb screen to rivet the audience, as he held us transfixed by what was really nothing more than a filmed, one-set play where two middle-aged men converse for two hours over dinner. Both are experimental in their own ways.



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