Film and Television Features

Black Moon (Louis Malle, 1975)

The juxtaposition of the natural creature on synthetic surface opens Louis Malle’s surrealist war-torn paradise that is Black Moon (1975).  The lone badger scrounging on a hillside road immediately heralds the contrasts within the forthcoming scenario as a budding natural beauty, Lily, emerges from an unknown origin in a car through a hazy rural terrain that fosters a literal gender war between men and women.  Like these competing images, there is further duality in the confounding premise at the film’s conclusion (as Malle has confessed); it seems to reach beyond gender entirely into a labyrinthine psychological-mythological mind but not before unearthing the possibility of human evolution or transmigration.  Desperately, Lily flees the ravaged landscape and escalating violence to a strangely secluded house where man, plant, and animal appear to coexist on equal planes and silently communicate through the senses of sight and touch.  Malle defines the premises as a thematic parallel universe, and French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau complements his remarks with allusions to Lewis Carroll in her essay “Black Moon: Louis in Wonderland.”  “It is a tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening,” she writes, “explicitly modeled on Alice in Wonderland, which dictated among other things, Malle’s choice of the British actress Cathryn Harrison and his preference for filming it in English.”  While wandering in this peculiar setting, Lily is transfixed by a plump but elusive female-voiced black unicorn, a sort-of-White Rabbit, as she chases it across the grounds in inadvertent mischief.  Lily encounters other distant and dispiriting human figures as well, like a mute androgynous twin couple who both share her name (Alexandra Stewart and Joe Dallesandro) and a bed-ridden elderly woman (Therese Giehse) who frequently speaks in an indecipherable language and receives unheard communications from the outside world through a radio transmitter.  Seemingly derived from imagination, these idiosyncratic characters feel subconsciously ingrained, unreal and unaffecting, but the heroine Lily is ultimately transformed through her encounters with them.

With not a spoken word for the first sixteen minutes of the film, the few humans in Black Moon are intended to assume otherworldly and enigmatic traits from the remnants of science fiction or dream states.  In the predominance of film, particularly Malle’s impressively broad oeuvre, human behavior is certainly a preordained catalyst for audience identification and interaction.  However, Black Moon takes a different approach to disorient the viewer and separate identity and geography from its heroine.  Animals seem more prone to mumble and squeak syllables or words than humans, who refrain from ordinary methods of speech; flowers even sound cries of pain.  Here, Malle captures an equality of the plant and animal kingdoms to shed light upon the futility of traditional means of expression, directly correspondent to the unusual methods of creation behind the film itself.  The elderly woman who unquestionably utters the most perceivable dialogue in the film even seems to exist as a shell for the consciousness of another, her rambling emanating from a surrogate voice or unknown force on the other end of her radio transmitter.  When she receives calls, she delivers observations about the heroine and muses on events like an overseer or missing narrator.  In other communicative bouts without the transmitter, the elderly woman recites obscure poetry and laments the impending loss of her friend Humphrey, a rat.  Halfway through the film, she possesses Lily in a bizarre consoling ceremony, a shared poem that beckons further questioning about memory, metaphorical darkness (of the surrounding war), and confidence in a form of rebirth.  “O Charitable Death, wrap me tenderly in your magic…” they chant, instilling the film with further air of mystery and phantasmagoria. Alternately, while the woman speaks in cryptic metaphors, the black unicorn articulates with authentic humanism in the wisdom of a mother and philosophy of an artist (recalling a Francis Bacon quote on beauty).  Lily even confesses to the unicorn’s forwardness before she vanishes into the landscape once more, “…I like talking to you!  Nobody talks to me here.”  Utilizing this archetypal reversal, Lily uncovers an absence of the logical reality, and the film itself succumbs to fantasy logic (or illogic) and intends to portray surrealism as a catalyst for a larger awakening within.  If the Vincendeau’s argument is also considered, such is the case with Caroll’s Alice character as well.  

Astrology resource Aqua Moonlight analyzes the symbol of the black (or dark moon) from numerous perspectives, which finds degrees of relevance in Malle’s work.  The site proposes, “The black moon is representative of the darker side of human nature… the subtle refusal to see how we have manifested our fears.  It is the deeper truth that we are forever in search of within ourselves.”  The film can be seen as a direct meditation on that principle with Lily as a theme.  Additionally, ‘black moon’ by name alone suggests opposing forces.  To complement the introductory frame, Malle arranges a vivid scene near the conclusion of the film where dozens of white sheep and black turkeys crowd in segregated groups in front of the house.  The positioning of the black foreground against a white background visually evokes a mysterious duality.  In the prior sequence, a dormant inner conflict becomes an active outer conflict, realized as the brother and sister Lilys descend into madness of the war of the sexes that dominated the opening sequence.  Upon the heroine’s arrival, the house is seen as safe-haven and paradise where violence of the neighboring landscape had not permeated.  Soon, however, the inexorable bloodshed gradually creeps in as Lily discovers a flock of chickens hovering over a disemboweled body; she also witnesses the brother decapitate an eagle in the house, and the twin Lilys finally duel with knife and large tree branch.  Universal chaos ensues; changes occur, and questions accrue.  The heroine’s inner state seems to predict the film’s contours and vice versa; she fears something unknown within herself and the environment.  Upon reaching the concluding scene, one grasps a sexual metamorphosis that is simultaneously real and surreal.  The film turns a psychoanalytic corner when Lily replaces the elderly woman in the bed and prepares to nourish the spontaneously materializing black unicorn, the culmination of a disorienting journey meant to reveal personal truth, identity, and purpose.  Robert Altman’s dreamlike 3 Women (1977), filmed just a couple of years later, seems influenced by the manner in which Malle incorporates the sexual psychology of femininity.  Altman’s film also reflects moods of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director who often carries the reputation of greatest male director of women.  These notions are adjoined by Black Moon’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, who also worked with Bergman throughout his entire career.  Aqua Moonlight lastly provides a turn to Carl Jung’s idea of the anima, a “man’s image of the ideal woman… the feminine side of his personality.”  Clearly, Black Moon is multi-faceted and fosters a cycle of questions; is the film a sort of psychological therapy experiment for the director or an attempt to return to unfulfilled youthful desires?  The film is too obscure and puzzling to acquire unanimous praise, but it is a unique visual odyssey.  Or literary allusion.  Or filmmaker’s self-therapy.  Or whatever it is.