Black Moon is a strange film, an avant-garde fantasy from acclaimed French director Louis Malle. It begins with a girl, Lily (Cathryn Harrison), caught in the middle of a gender war, attempting to flee in disguise and escape brutal scenes of men and women killing each other. She winds up at the mansion of an Old Lady (Therese Giehse, in her final role, and to whom the film is dedicated), who is cared for by Brother Lily (Joe Dallesandro) and Sister Lily (Alexandra Stewart). Everybody, it would seem, is named Lily. Also, there are talking animals. Black Moon is commonly categorized as surreal or anarchic, but I would take a different approach and argue that it is neither. Malle is far too literal-minded to make any of this work.
Black Moon was quickly relegated to a curio in Malle’s filmography, oft forgotten and only recently re-appraised. At the time of its release, however, it did win two César Awards. I cannot argue with giving an award to Sven Nykvist, who shot the film, even if this is far from his best work. Best Sound, however, is truly inexplicable. There is a lot of bad dubbing and sound effects, and the mixing is generally static. Sound levels often remain fixed despite the distance of the source relative to the camera; for example, in an early scene, when Lily is driving a car, the sound of the automobile remains at a fixed level, despite the fact that she starts in the foreground and drives away, disappearing into the forest in the background. This has the effect of flattening the entire soundscape, dulling the atmosphere.
The film is not altogether bad. I should take a moment to say something positive, because Malle’s work has some merit. The talking animals provide many of the film’s best moments. The Old Lady’s relationship with Humphrey, a talking rat, humanizes her more than anything else in the film (she otherwise spends most of her scenes on a ham radio providing plot summaries, hilariously). The best scenes belong to the unicorn, whose role in the film is one of the few genuinely enchanting aspects. The film also has some wonderful grace notes, particularly when Lily carries the Old Lady around her room and sings to her. Nykvist captures this moment with rich, dark shadows and the soft, mesmerizing glow of flickering flames. Every interior location that features a fireplace is wonderfully shot, providing the few times when Nykvist really gets to flex his muscles. Suffice to say, Black Moon is generally watchable, even if, as I’m about to argue, it fails on a fundamental level.
Ginette Vincendeau, in her Criterion essay about the film, says that Malle was influenced by automatism, specifically automatic writing, a Surrealist artistic process by which, to quote Wikipedia, “the artist suppresses conscious control over the making process, allowing the unconscious mind to have great sway.” According to Vincendeau, Malle “eschewed narrative logic, claiming that ‘each time something appeared that looked like a plotline, I would cross it out,’ thus producing an anarchic set of events and opaque metaphors.” But I find these claims somewhat dubious. The film is far too ordered and structured, to the point I would argue Malle’s conscious attempts to avoid logic, or anything resembling a plot, resulted in a deliberately labored film.
The film’s most obvious ordering principle is Lily’s attraction to the unicorn, which is ambiguously related to the Old Lady. The unicorn’s first appearance near the start of the film sets Lily on the path to the Old Lady’s house, and a large part of the action involves Lily being trapped in the Old Lady’s room, eventually escaping to look for the unicorn and chase it around the property. The film’s setting is also rationally constructed. The Old Lady owns the property, and Brother Lily and Sister Lily act as caretakers. Brother tends to the grounds and Sister takes care of the children and animals. There is nothing genuinely surprising or anarchic in the film because each character functions precisely as they should, according to their roles, and Lily is given a clear and rational motivation (first to escape the war, second to investigate the house and the unicorn) that drives the plot.
Black Moon is surreal or anarchic only in the sense that, as an example, an eagle suddenly flying into a room and being killed with a sword sounds random on paper. This sequence, however, is explicitly foreshadowed by a painting in the Old Lady’s room, which Malle draws attention to by having Lily walk over and study it. Nor is this example even the first time a bird flies into the house through a window. This event, at this specific moment in the film, is not only reasonably possible, but prefigured. And it configures the following scene, in which Sister is angry that Brother killed the bird, and the two fight on the lawn. Far from being irrational, the plot itself is labored; it’s conventional, organized linearly and often with a clear principle of cause and effect.
Black Moon was heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But the comparison, invited by Malle himself, does the film no favors. Carroll’s story is full of allusions to contemporary politics and popular culture, and many of the characters were based on real people. The absurdism of the story is also a critical response to nineteenth century developments in mathematics, as argued by Melanie Bayley in New Scientist. Malle’s film, by contrast, largely avoids contemporary allusions. It contains many classical references to art and mythology, but these are purposefully abstracted. And by modeling the film on Carroll’s story, Malle only engages with it as a literal fantasy, turning Alice into another abstracted literary reference. The only contemporary cultural or political allusion Black Moon seems to contain is the gender war that provides the film’s backdrop, commonly accepted as a reference to second-wave feminism. But even this feels vague in the context of the film’s narrative. So what is the purpose of Black Moon‘s various references? What does the film specifically say about the Women’s Liberation Movement, for example, if anything?
Surrealist cinema is characterized, to quote Wikipedia one more time, by “shocking, irrational, or absurd imagery.” Surrealism is an expression of the unconscious mind. But unlike Dadaist art, which favors chaos and anarchy as a political statement, Surrealism favors the unconscious as a genuine organizing principle. More than a particular style, Surrealism is a methodology; what it lacks in rationality, it gains in an intuitive, emotional coherence. Luis Buñuel’s earliest films were already formulating criticisms of the bourgeois class and societal repression, representing violent outbursts of a social (un)consciousness attempting to free itself from the shackles of a reality ordered by the ruling elite. When a character shoots himself in the head in L’Age d’Or and falls upwards into the ceiling, it’s not just a surprising and absurd visual; it’s coherent, an uprooting of the laws of physics that simultaneously upends the logical order of a stifling and corrupted sociopolitical fabric. The absurd and unrelenting nightmare of David Lynch’s Eraserhead is similarly organized by an intuitive, emotional coherence, tapping into basic human fears and anxieties surrounding relatable and universal themes like reproduction and parenthood.
Black Moon fails, firstly, because it lacks memorable and surprising images. Malle’s mis-en-scène is far too pedestrian, heavily favoring medium shots and close-ups, and generally favoring Lily’s perspective, conventionally organizing the on-screen drama. His staging of action, particularly, is too clumsy to be spellbinding. For example, the film opens with Lily running over a badger. In the first shot, the car clearly avoids the animal, and in the second, an obviously fake badger goes under a tire. Worse, Malle’s images lack striking, original metaphors. There are no ladies in radiators, no grins without a cat. Snakes and unicorns and even the pagan reference of the film’s title are not surprising or surreal, but recognizable literary symbols that largely function according to tradition; as Vincendeau notes, the film commonly invites psychoanalytic readings that interpret these signifiers in the context of a feminine sexual awakening. Black Moon is not a voyage to the limits of cinema, as Malle once called it, but a mundane fantasy treading conventional and familiar ground.
Black Moon fails, finally, because it is emotionally incoherent. Because, to put it bluntly, Malle labors too hard to make the film meaningless. He seems to misunderstand the methodology of Surrealism and automatism; far from accessing the unconscious mind, he consciously constructs European arthouse twaddle.Black Moon insists on being a dream, a swirling playground of literary signifiers and classical references, only to avoid having to say anything. Rather than see Surrealism as a political activity, Malle sees an escape into genre, and an escape from the politics of the day. Vincendeau, again in her Criterion essay, provides the most appropriate appraisal:
“[O]ne could see Malle’s flight into the past and to distant (including mythological) lands as also something of a flight from contemporary women—now no longer elegant playmates (as in The Lovers) or tomboys on the brink of important change (as in Zazie) but going through full emancipation and thus more challenging. Malle certainly wasn’t guilty of the kind of overt misogyny seen in some filmmakers’ reactions to the rise of feminism and women’s liberation […] but […] he chose nevertheless to retreat into fairy tales, exotic locations, erotic high art, and the past.”
To produce Black Moon, Malle “also ‘retreated’ to the country, and more precisely his estate in the wild, beautiful Causses region of southwest France.” And watching the final product, I would argue that Malle retreated, finally, up his own ass.