2017 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Louis Malle’s ‘Black Moon’

“I don’t know how to describe Black Moon because it’s a strange mélange — if you want, it’s a mythological fairy-tale taking place in the near future.” – Louis Malle

The 1970s were a perhaps surprisingly good time for film fairy tales. Sure, there were the more traditional, family-friendly features like Jim Henson’s 1971 version of The Frog Prince or the Bill Cosby-starring animated short Aesop’s Fables (also 1971). But this was also the era that began with avant-garde curios like Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin, both released in 1970, and concluded with Harry Hurwitz’s erotic Fairy Tales in 1978. This to say nothing of the even more audacious cinematic fantasies like Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974), Kenneth Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon (started in 1950, finished and released in 1972) or the multitude of comical porn parodies that sprang up from time to time. Fully freed from the shackles of Production Code injunctions, still reeling from the far-out 60s and broadened by the increasingly idiosyncratic, overtly adult fare that openly illuminated the decade’s movie screens, filmmakers the world over were ready and willing to take dazzling, perplexing trips down whatever rabbit hole they could, and art-house audiences were ready and willing to follow.

It’s within this framework — right in the middle — that one finds Louis Malle’s 1975 film, Black Moon. Itself exhibiting the influence of everything from the composite works of Luis Buñuel and Lewis Carroll to singular films like Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (1968) and Robert Altman’s Images (1972), Malle’s fantastic voyage also expresses stimulus from real-world occurrences, like the Vietnam War, which had “ended” in April of 1975, less than five months before Black Moon was released, and the Feminist movement, which was still gaining liberating steam as the 1970s progressed. It was a heady time, a little overwhelming maybe, and that might explain why Black Moon’s young protagonist, Lily (Cathryn Harrison), is so keen to escape the chaos. As the film opens, she is barreling down a country road while an indistinct, pervasive war rages around her. Much of the conflict is intermittently indicated — a radio station survey of crime and violence, surrounding gunfire, some explosions, planted artillery and a few scattered soldiers, dead and alive — but one pronounced part of the skirmish is its oppositional front, which seems to cut across primarily sexual borders. The first signal of this is that Lily feels obliged to tuck her long, blonde hair under a hat, posing as a boy in the first of the film’s gender obfuscations. Malle also shows male soldiers line up a squad of female combatants for execution, and later, a group of women warriors taunt and pummel a fallen man. The whole scenario may look and feel like a post-nuclear, sci-fi struggle, but the more oblique sexual politics keep motivations and methods markedly ambiguous.

In her haste, Lily drives over a rambling badger. As the first image of the film, the animal is obvious to the viewer, as is the oncoming car, filmed from a distance down a long stretch of winding road. Conventional expectations anticipate the vehicle to swerve or the mammal to move, but if there’s one thing Malle is aiming for with Black Moon, it’s a blatant defiance of conventional expectation. Lily speeds along, the pace of her exodus amplified by the camera’s tire-level forward progression. She eventually comes upon a flock of loose sheep (their shepherd seen hanging from a tree), then proceeds to a secluded stone manor (Malle’s own 200-year-old residence). Nestled amongst this lush estate, a 225-acre plot in Quercy’s Dordogne valley, the house is at once inviting (most of its windows and doors are wide open, a gateway for a veritable barnyard of animals as well as Lily’s curiosity) and ominous (fires burn inside and out, food cooks for an unseen diner). Malle disperses slightly surreal touches, like a pig sitting idly in a child’s booster seat and a glass of milk so big that Lily has to two-hand it, but these quirks do little to assuage the girl’s snooping. Naturally, she begins to explore, settling in a room where an old lady, played by Thérèse Giehse, a star in Malle’s prior film, Lacombe, Lucien (1974), lounges sprawled out in bed. While Malle would tell the French television program Pour le cinema the old woman represents “a certain form of wisdom or knowledge tinged with aggression and derision,” he also acknowledges that a “shadow of death” hangs over her. An invalid with some sort of malady, she is nevertheless strong enough to manhandle Lily in moments of grotesque belligerence.

Communication — or the lack thereof — is key to Black Moon. But even after around 20 minutes of no intelligible dialogue beyond a proclaimed “hey!” (the old lady abruptly quiets Lily when she first tries to talk), there are still just bizarre, incongruous utterances (something about a gold watch); when the old lady gets worked up, she resorts to mumbled, incomprehensible gibberish. Then the words come forth with alarming and confusing significance. Latched on to her bedside radio transmitter, the old lady receives a call from an unknown party. Whoever is on the other line somehow knows of Lily’s presence at the house, and the elderly woman indirectly bombards the girl with insults regarding her intelligence and appearance. She also tells the unseen caller that the girl “has a very vivid imagination,” chalking up her sightings — the war, a magical unicorn — to unchecked fancy. The intriguing part of this charge is that while these are things Lily did indeed see, she had not spoken of them to the old lady. And still it begs the question, was any of it real? Maybe it was a continuous figment of her inspired mind? Anything, Malle already posits, is possible. A little later in the film, about half a dozen alarm clocks begin to go off and Lily chucks them out the window. Why the strong reaction? Too much noise, or is she afraid she’ll wake up?

Lily’s domestic wanderings lead her to a man behind the house, a groundskeeper who is actually the old woman’s son, and who also happens to be named Lily. Played by Joe Dallesandro, the young man caresses Lily’s face in a way that is both sensual and communicative. Lily spots someone else — who looks like another male farmhand — and asks who he is. Lily tells her (telepathically) and the girl inquisitively responds, “Your sister … your sister Lily?” Again, there is gender-deception based on a character’s ability to outwardly mask or muddy their sex, and this was something Malle specifically wanted to submit, starting with Harrison’s veiled introduction. As sister Lily, Alexandra Stewart was Malle’s partner at the time and had appeared in a number of films to this point, including François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Day for Night (1973). To play against her, Malle sought a male lookalike, ultimately settling on Dallesandro, who, for his part, was most famous as a “Warhol superstar” from Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), among others. The homogenous casting resulted in an androgynous pairing where Malle was hoping to suggest “one character split into two bodies.” (Aside from challenging the demarcations of sex, Black Moon also tests familial lines and assignments, as when sister Lily checks on her mother, thought dead by Harrison’s Lily, and ends up breastfeeding the feeble, apparently hungry, old lady).

The more Harrison’s Lily investigates, the more formidably uncanny Black Moon becomes. Nonsensical prattle or not, the others speak in conspiratorial tones, their cagey mannerisms suggesting something hidden, something underway and untold. At the same time, Lily gradually becomes more assured, possibly knowing more than even she lets on (against all odds and oddities, she has a determined nosiness, particularly with regards to the roaming unicorn). There’s an illusory anxiety in Malle’s film, one built on an analogous dream logic where the viewer, like Lily, is dropped into a strange world unaware and unprepared, where bizarre events occur as if utterly normal to those already there. In time, however, Lily is more contented in this peculiar environment, accepting its absurdities and lashing out in comfortably familiar fashion.

One moment that sets the girl off is when the old woman cackles and snaps photos of Lily as her “bloomers” keep falling down in an almost slap-stick routine. This particular instance is relatively innocuous, but Black Moon does have a related, rather risqué spate of sexual suggestiveness. Harrison, who made her screen debut in 1972, in Demy’s The Pied Piper and the aforementioned Altman film, was a beautiful, lucid actress, and here she embodies a sort of Alice in Wonderland astonishment with a more modern cynicism. She is also an uncomfortably tantalizing nubile figure. Her low-cut blouse becomes incrementally more revealing as buttons come undone (keep in mind, she’s 15), a reappearing snake, with all its mythical connotations, slithers up her skirt, and, in the end, she exposes her breasts to nurse the unicorn(!). It’s hard to assign any of this an explicitly perverse intent, so surreal is the film’s fundamental context, but it’s still notable. And besides, Malle was certainly no stranger to provocative sexuality, what with the teenage boy of Murmur of the Heart (1971), who has sex with his mother, and the almost completely nude Brooke Shields, age 12, in his extraordinary 1978 film, Pretty Baby.

Black Moon exists in a bleak world, a blue-green-grey countryside in perpetual dusk. Enriching the lavish art direction by Ghislain Uhry, the cinematography by Bergman stalwart Sven Nykvist paints a muted, somber picture. “When I prepared the film with Sven, we agreed that there should be no sun,” stated Malle, “it should be all cloud and flat light with no source and no shadows.” The enigmatic Black Moon is never wholly fanciful, though. There’s just enough surreality to take the picture to another level in terms of its general ambiance (flowers that whine when trampled, a unicorn that talks, inexplicable deaths and resurrections, a horde of nude children who come and go and literally disappear mid-scene), but so many essentially realistic elements remain — the semblance of a common reality remains — that even the film’s inconsistent temporal structure flows fluidly. But again, it comes down to expectations, and Lily herself questions the fairy tale validity of what she sees; in her books, she says, unicorns look different than the one here. (Meanwhile, this unicorn scolds the girl for running after it all the time, declaring the pursuit to be tedious.)

After Lily plays piano through the evening, during an impromptu recital, the remote war appears to catch up with her. But in the final moments of Black Moon, she wakes up in bed. “Ah-ha,” one might briefly assume, “it was a dream — that old set-up!” But like the film’s opening and so much that occurred thereafter, Malle wraps up the picture by resisting assumptions. In the misty morning light, Lily rises from the bed and walks to where the unicorn is waiting for a meal. This fairy tale narrative continues, even as the film ends.

A movie like Black Moon is bound to elicit widely varied interpretation, with some adamant in their search for analytical symbolism. For better or worse, frustrating or relieving the audience, Malle largely refutes this attempted reasoning, stating the film is based on an “irrational core,” with no pretext of story; the outlandish behavior, he says, is the story. It comes down to intuition. The film is not about ideas, he argues, but “images, sounds, and even scents.” That didn’t cut it for some, like Pauline Kael who summed up her thoughts thusly: “[Malle is] a sane man trying to make a crazy man’s film… There’s no obsessive quality in the disordered vision, and no wit. It’s deadly.” On the other hand, Susan Sontag called the film “mesmerizing.” In any event, the always eclectic and always fascinating Louis Malle made what he considered to be the most intimate film of his career, adding, “I see it as a strange voyage to the limits of the medium, or maybe my own limits.” Knowing some of what came before this movie — Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and The Lovers (1958), for instance — and knowing what still lay ahead for the director — Atlantic City (1980), My Dinner with Andre (1981), and Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), among others — at least one thing is clear: whatever limits Malle set for himself were limits well worth confronting, and when surpassed, they almost always yielded an absolutely incomparable motion picture.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.