Black Moon [Blu-Ray]
Director : Louis Malle
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1975
Stars : Cathryn Harrison (Lily), Thérèse Giehse (The Old Lady), Alexandra Stewart (The Sister), Joe Dallesandro (The Brother)
Not that anyone could make complete sense of the film, least of all the filmmaker himself, but most would agree that Louis Malle’s feverish fantasy Black Moon is about, among other things, disorder, illogic, and the conundrum of communication, which makes it ever so appropriate that it erupted so unexpectedly and so forcefully in the middle of the director’s career, then all but vanished like a bad dream. And Black Moon is indeed a bad dream--one that at first compels your attention, but then loses steam as its outlandish and nonsensical detours begin to feel less like the “automatic writing” of the surrealists and more like a series of meandering, meaningless head games, each melting into the next with no lasting impact.
The story takes place in a near distant future in which war has broken out between the sexes, with militarized bands of men and women gunning each other down in the countryside. This is the first of the film’s many overt literalizations of the psychological, mythical, and political, and it probably had a particularly sharp impact in the mid-1970s when second-wave feminism was at the peak of its political power. The protagonist is a teenage girl named Lily (Cathryn Harrison, granddaughter of actor Rex Harrison), who we first see driving through the otherwise deserted countryside in a small car before the violence of war forces her to flee deep into the forest, where she stumbles upon what appears to be a deserted country farmhouse. Evoking shades of both Lewis Carroll’s Alice and the Grimm Brothers’ Goldilocks, Lily soon discovers that she is in the midst of a bizarre family who seem to exist in their own parallel world, both in contact with, yet strangely disconnected from, the war raging all around them (one of the film’s most effective techniques is the presentation of the war via the sound of distant gunfire).
Lily first encounters the family matriarch, an old, bedridden woman played by Thérèse Giehse, who played an important role in Malle’s previous film, the incisive character study Lacombe, Lucien (1974), and to whom Black Moon is dedicated (she died shortly before its release). The old woman is a constant contradiction: sometimes gentle, sometimes vicious, she speaks both gibberish and lucid English, converses with an enormous rat, and keeps in touch with some outside person via a hulking bedside radio. At one point she appears to be dead before seemingly coming back to life, and throughout the film she acts as both Lily’s antagonist and her benefactor. The old woman’s (apparent) progeny is a pair of twentysomething, slightly androgynous siblings, both of whom are also named Lily (Alexandra Stewart and inexpressive Wahol Adonis Joe Dallesandro). They largely ignore Lily’s presence, although at one point the brother carries on a complete conversation with her by touching her. The farm is also home to a hoard of naked children who appear from time to time, usually chasing farm animals, although at one point they inexplicably attack Lily before even more inexplicably disappearing.
Black Moon’s perversity lies not so much in its overtly sexual overtones and symbolism (of which there is quite a bit), but Malle’s refusal to tie anything together in a way that is even vaguely coherent, even if the meaning is that there is no meaning (the cinematography by regular Ingmar Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist is undeniably beautiful, though, and Malle’s direction is often evocative in way he conveys great amounts of narrative information without dialogue, particularly in the first half hour). The film begins with an image of death--a badger that is crushed on the highway--and ends with an image of life: Lily preparing to suckle a unicorn, which perhaps represents her emerging into full womanhood, although such a reading effectively collapses womanhood and motherhood. Black Moon is often described as oneiric, and it certainly relies on a kind of hazy dream logic that curiously contrasts with Malle’s decidedly literal approach to the film’s visuals. His anarchic comedy Zazie dans le métro (1960) notwithstanding, Malle’s previous films, particularly Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Lacombe, Lucien, had a simple, straightforward style that complimented his humane approach to difficult subject matter (particularly the vexed political issue of French collaboration with the Nazis in Lacombe, Lucien). He uses that same approach here, but it strips the fairy tale emotion from the oddball imagery; it’s too concrete for its own good.
If Black Moon has a central point, it is to demystify the mythological, to essentially disenchant; it’s an anti-fairy tale. Thus, that most fabled and elusive of fabulous creatures, the unicorn, is here depicted as a short, dark, pot-bellied slouch who speaks in meaningless quotes and demonstrates blatant hypocrisy (he gets onto Lily for lying down on a bed of wildflowers that cry out in pain, and then proceeds to eat the very same flowers). Malle also takes one of mythology’s favorite tropes--sentient, speaking beasts--and flattens the effect, partially via the crudity of the dubbing (it sounds like bad ADR and is never matched to any kind of mouth movements) and partially via the nonsensical nature of what the animals say, whether it be the rat’s squeaking gibberish or the unicorn’s contradictory statements and actions. The film’s overall effect is rather deadening once you realize that nothing links up or provides the kind of shocking jolt or deep unease that is the hallmark of great surrealism and that whatever humor might be gleaned from the ridiculousness is effectively squashed by the lurid seriousness of Malle’s intent.
|Black Moon Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Black Moon is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||June 28, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Long unavailable on home video and generally hard to see, Black Moon looks quite good in Criterion’s 1080p high-def transfer, which was made from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored. Sven Nykvist’s award-winning cinematography is well represented, with a predominance of moody, dark hues that are broken from time to time with strong splashes of color. The image has a strong presence of grain, but detail is excellent throughout, especially in terms of the film’s various textures, whether it be the weave of Lily’s pink sweater or the rumples in the old woman’s bedsheets. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm sound negative and digitally restored, resulting in a clean, detailed track that keeps the film’s stretches of silence free of hiss or other aural artifacts. Criterion offers both Malle’s preferred English language track and a French track (the dubbing on the film is relatively poor, with dialogue rarely matching the actor’s mouths even when they’re clearly speaking the same language).|
|Seems like a lost opportunity here in terms of supplements. Surely there is some Louis Malle scholar out there who is dying for 100 minutes to explain and interpret what many see as a decided train wreck of a movie. Yet, Criterion’s Blu-Ray lacks any kind of audio commentary or retrospective interviews, settling instead for an archival television interview with Malle from 1975, a gallery of about 30 production photos, and the original theatrical trailer, which is basically the first five minutes of the movie (arguably the movie’s five best minutes).|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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