Black Moon (1975)

FILM, Film Society
img_blackmoon-1975Previously at the Wellington Film Society: Louis Malle’s one-of-a-kind surrealist experiment.

The adage that Louis Malle “never made the same film twice” definitely applies to this outré 1975 fantasy, a post-apocalyptic fairy tale at once kinky, allegorical, and distinctively surreal. It’s a sharp detour from Malle’s semi-autobiographical Lacombe, Lucien (1974), a piercing wartime drama about collaboration during occupation, and a dimension apart from his next feature, the Louisiana-set period piece Pretty Baby (1978). Nevertheless, despite Malle’s unpredictable course as an filmmaker, there’s more than a whiff of those two adjacent works in Black Moon’s part-mythic, part science-fictional universe: the close proximity of violence to sheltered bucolic surroundings (à la Lacombe, Lucien), and an uneasy sexual gaze focused on a nubile protagonist (à la Pretty Baby). When taken as entry and exit points to its Alice in Wonderland-inspired narrative, Malle’s film no longer seems completely out of the blue. The director himself has equated the ending of Lacombe, Lucien with Black Moon’s arresting opening sequence, a bleak future seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl trying to escape the clutches of war.

Admittedly, neither this fictional war waged between men and women, nor the film’s bizarre concluding scenes, which resemble something out of a David Hamilton movie, could be considered strong points in its makeup. Rather, what fascinates about Black Moon—and what keeps me coming back to it, for better or worse—is the series of strange digressions that run amok through its middle section, where the fleeing heroine (Cathryn Harrison, granddaughter of Rex Harrison) encounters an idyllic country farmhouse and its occupants, among them a bewildered old matriarch, an incestuous brother and sister, and a throng of feral children. In the simplest terms, it’s a down-the-rabbit-hole experience, by turns baffling and spellbinding, a keen expression of cinematic dream logic. For a more fitting description that draws on its surrealist roots (even one of its writers was a Buñuel!), consider it the moving image equivalent of an ‘exquisite corpse’.

Whichever way you cut it, Black Moon is a weird movie, though I would add that its direction is motivated less by the concept of “WTF”—that lazy catchall for anything outlandish or inscrutable—than the unwritten possibilities of “what next?” In an interview for an episode of Pour le cinema (included on the Criterion DVD of Black Moon), Malle discusses his interest in observing behaviour over story, and by extension, the “opaque, ambiguous, irrational” actions of the characters. The capricious flow of the film suggests that Malle, in assembling its events into a beautiful but incoherent form, is himself lost at sea, adrift in a stream of (un)consciousness, which he saliently compares to the surrealist tradition of automatic writing. That the ‘narrative’ moves involuntarily from death and destruction, to exchanges with talking animals, to an inexplicable breast-feeding scene, is indicative of the surrealist thought process. This is not to say that Black Moon is a film without vision or purpose: it is world clearly defined by “images, sounds, and even scents” according to Malle; a journey through-the-looking-glass where natural order is turned on its head. Animals and plants hold the power of language in this largely wordless film, as do the symbol-heavy visuals, shot by Sven Nykvist, responsible for the striking photography on many Bergman films, as well as Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

Sure enough, the loaded imagery opens up the film to a host of readings and associations, namely the overt sexual allegory detailed in Ginette Vincendeau’s supplementary essay on the Criterion release. And one can certainly have fun identifying the symbolism at play in terms of psychoanalysis and dream interpretation, or the allusions to pastoral art, particularly painting, as the cinematography evokes the softness and tone of 18th century romanticism.

This is tempered, of course, by Black Moon’s war ravaged setting, the context of which is both the most intriguing aspect of the film, and its most unresolved. Malle manages to maintain a quiet sense of foreboding throughout (the sounds of combat echo in the distance), and he touches on the gendered conflict through the Lily siblings (played by Alexandra Stewart and Warhol ‘superstar’ Joe Dallesandro), who act as kind of conscientious objectors by virtue of their androgyny. Still, the treatment of this post-apocalyptic scenario is ultimately unsatisfying. Its unrealised potential certainly brings to mind American artist Amie Seigel’s partial remake of the film in 2010, which exhibited at the 5th Auckland Triennial last year. Taking Malle’s dark view of savagery between the sexes and relocating it to the disquieting expanse of a dilapidated Californian suburb, Seigel enlarges the idea of a ruinous future through vast post-utopian imagery, an acute sense of cinematic artifice, and a highly immersive soundtrack. But the film is also rendered in an unmistakable present tense—all those foreclosed suburban homes are raw wounds, indeed—a defining quality of the best science fiction. Malle’s Black Moon, on the other hand, exists on a more distant plane; although flirting with the idea of women’s liberation and the second-wave feminism, it retreats into “exotic locations, erotic high art, and the past” (Vincendeau).

In his interview for Pour le cinema, Malle goes on to lament the answers that cinemagoers unreasonably demand. “I find it very hard when I’ve made a film and people see it and ask, ‘What were you trying to say?’ Of course, what one’s trying to say is right inside the film. There’s nothing else to add. In this, I think cinema lags behind other forms of expression, because no one would ever dream of dragging a painter in front of his work to ask, ‘Explain this painting to me.’ The painter would laugh. Such things are beyond question in contemporary painting [and art]. But with a film, people always want to know how and why. They want it explained, they want to know the message. A film like this is something even I don’t totally understand, and that’s what I think is interesting about it.” Whether or not Malle would have been flattered by Seigel’s remake, I think he would have at least been envious, for hers is a cinematic work that exists in a discursive space. The modernist gallery, though not without its own set of problems, is a refuge for experimental film in many ways—an escape from the ideology of movie theatres, shrines of worship to entertainment and storytelling constructed with the audience’s passive but pleasurable engagement in mind. Black Moon, a tangential, free-associative film narrative, would arguably feel right at home in a gallery—a structure people move fluidly through and experience (time-based) art not necessarily in the sequence it was intended. In the company of other conceptual arts works, I would wager that viewers would at the very least be more curious, respectful, and even forgiving of this challenging and captivating film.

Also screening in the Louis Malle season: ‘Vanya on 42nd Street’.
Film Societies in fourteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at filmsocietywellington.net.nz, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.
Filed under: FILM, Film Society

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.