Until recently, Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975) had been hard to find. Thankfully, Criterion released it this summer and I finally found my chance to watch it. It tells the tale of a pubescent girl trapped in a world torn by a literal battle of the sexes. Battalions of men and women are roving the landscape gunning each other down. It’s in this environment that the pubescent Lily escapes to the countryside. Upon discovering an autumnal home, her entire reality melts into a fantasy world.
Before going further, it’s worth noting several details about the making of the film. Malle apparently derived inspiration from several sources. Chief among them was Lewis Carroll’s The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. He also found inspiration in Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (1968)–another movie which takes place in a war-torn environment. To further the effect of the inspiration, Malle employed longtime Bergman collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Last but not least, in an attempt to generate a surrealist scope, he consulted with fellow French filmmaker Joyce Buñuel, stepdaughter of the Sultan of Surrealism, Luis Buñuel. These are some heavy influences and the effect of each is profound.
The home that Lily comes up on is inhabited by an elderly, doddering woman speaking often in an incomprehensible language; her pet rat, who mutters incomprehensibly; a pair of possibly incestuous siblings, the brother played by Joe Dallesandro and the sister played by Alexandra Stewart, Malle’s partner at the time; and a flock of naked children. Inhabiting the house’s grounds are a talking black unicorn, and flowers that wail out in pain when stepped upon or destroyed. Oddly enough, it’s completely unclear which of these things are real and which are fantasy. The seemingly obviously fake unicorn points out that the elderly woman isn’t real. Perhaps none of it is real. The film is mostly free of dialogue so the viewer is left to deduce on their own what’s real, what isn’t, and whether or not it really matters (that’s the camp I’m in–that none of this matters).
It’s all very dense in symbolism, with the film’s “Alice”–Lily–serving as the vehicle for the delivery. Ultimately, it’s about a pubescent girl’s journey through puberty into womanhood, and the accompanying surrealist fears. As such, the film features numerous languid Malickesque shots of phallic creatures. The unicorn’s horn is the easiest example to spot but there are also centipedes and snakes. In one particularly direct scene, a snake slowly climbs up Lily’s leg into her skirt. And the old woman works as her symbolic mirror, that which awaits her on the other side of womanhood–old age, and eventually death.
What I find fascinating in all of this is Malle’s position as a director who’s impossible to pigeonhole. He sought out one genre after another, made them his own, and then moved on to the next genre, leaving his admirers with no particular style or auteur theory to glom onto. Even within THAT context, of Malle as extraordinarily versatile, Black Moon stands out as an outlier. It’s one thing to be versatile. It’s quite another to create this bizarre, dreamlike tale. Unfortunately, as extremely admirable as the attempt was, something is not quite right in the execution. Malle even said so himself, calling the film “clumsy” while also insisting that it be included in any list of his works. I think it’s only fair to let him have the last word on it. It would seem that even he knew that he’d created something peculiar and rare that should never be dismissed despite how awkward the execution was at times. I give it 4 out of 5 stars and deem it undoubtedly worthy of a place among the other pieces of the Malle canon, even if it arrived there via a most circuitous route.