I watched Louis Malle’s “Black Moon” (1975) about a year ago and in keeping with the spirit of the film, I have chosen to review it before watching it again, jumbled and half-remembered. I’ll watch it just after I finish the review, but I promise not to revise.
There’s really no way to unjumble “Black Moon.” When I watched it, I scribbled down the following description: “Alice in Wonderland” goes on a “Weekend” with the “Phantom of Liberty.” If those reference points don’t help you, I offer this. You know how we’ve all asked ourselves, “Is there a single film that combines genocide, a talking unicorn, and breast feeding?” Now that “Black Moon” has been made widely available, we can answer with a resounding, “Yes!”
If memory serves me (and who cares if it does) the film starts with a badger sniffing around on a road. He will soon regret the decision as a teenaged girl (dressed unconvincingly as a boy) rumbles by and over in her car. She is named Lily and is played by 16 year-old Cathryn Harrison, daughter of Rex Harrison. As Lily wanders the countryside, we discover there is a vicious civil war brewing and that it’s men vs. women. In one scene, about a dozen women are lined up and gunned down.
Lily escapes to a countryside manor (Louis Malle’s real-life estate) where she meets a bed-ridden old woman (Thérèse Giehse) and a twin brother and sister (fetish object Joe Dallesandro and Alexandra Stewart) who tend to the estate. They are often described as androgynous but Stewart (with whom Malle had a child) sure looks all-woman to me, and Little Joe is Little Joe. Other residents of the manor/farm include a group of naked children playing with a pig and the aforementioned talking unicorn.
The film is replete with talking animals though (if I recall correctly) only the unicorn talks intelligibly. The old woman has some kind of rodent that serves as a familiar and communicates in squeaks and screeches. So too do insects and even the grass and dandelions. Joe Dallesandro, however, does not speak at all though his Brooklyn accent would have made perfect sense in this looking-glass version of the French countryside. He appears to be telepathic although maybe it’s just his iconic hotness that gets through to budding adolescent Lily (Is his name Lily too? I forget.)
The old woman listens to a ham radio and occasionally needs to be breast fed. Also, some strange things happen. The characters’ actions are not psychologically motivated, and though Sven Nykvist’s camera explores every nook and cranny of the estate, the film’s geography is decidedly skewed with screen direction changing at will. Those naked kids keep appearing out of nowhere, tripping up poor Lily as she races after the unicorn, and corpses from the gender war (which periodically recedes and then returns to prominence) crop up randomly. Harrison moves with a cultivated awkwardness, hurling her upper body in front of her to propel her in a half-stumble with arms flailing about, making her seem more child-like even though she is already decidedly developed.
Call it a surrealist dreamscape or a feverish sexual awakening, but it is undeniably weird as hell, one of the ultimate head trip movies. Interpret at your own risk. I’m not sure what Malle was thinking, and in the only extra on the DVD he claims (perhaps coyly) that he isn’t sure what he was thinking either Comparisons to Bunuel are inevitable, and only strengthened by the fact that his daughter-in-law Joyce Bunuel is credited with “additional dialogue” on the film. But not all surrealism is equal, and I hesitate to link the two filmmakers too closely.
I am completely incapable of determining whether or not I actually like “Black Moon,” but I don’t much care. It is fascinating and, if not unique, it is at least an indelible viewing experience. The act of writing this review has rekindled many more memories of the film than I had when I started and I hope some of them are distorted, though I think I’m mostly on the money. As for whether or not you’ll like it, well, I’ll just say that it’s one of the great dare movies. And if you don’t watch it, you’re a chicken. Or maybe a talking unicorn.
OK, so now I’ve watched the film again. I’m surprised at how much I remembered accurately.
The high-def transfer (in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio) is another strong one from Criterion. The sharpness of the image is particular evident in outdoor scenes where the blades of grass stand out individually. The greens are particularly vibrant. The strong contrast of the high-def transfer is also apparent in the opening scene, a dark twilight sequence shot on the dull blue-gray of an asphalt road – detail is still sharp here. The film has a fine grainy look too with a good sense of depth. Overall, I wouldn’t rate this with Criterion’s very best transfers, but it’s still excellent.
There isn’t a whole lot of (intelligible) dialogue in the film, but Criterion has still provided two audio options, the English version in LPCM 1.0 and an alternate French dub in Dolby Digital Mono. There are a lot of sound effects (all the screeches and squeaks from animals and plants) and while the Mono track doesn’t provide any sense of depth or immersion the audio quality is clean and very sharp. Optional English subtitles are provided to support the English (or French dub) audio.
What can you really add to the experience of watching this film? Apparently not too much because Criterion has only included a Theatrical Trailer, a Stills Gallery and a short interview (12 min.) with Malle from an episode of the French TV program “Pour le cinéma” which originally aired on Sep 21, 1975.
The 16-page insert booklet features an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.
It’s no coincidence that Criterion has released both “Zazie dans le metro” (1960) and “Black Moon” in the same month. Viewers are more familiar with “Zazie” and might consider it to be Malle’s strangest movie, but where “Zazie” is packed with cartoon lunacy, “Black Moon” is just plain batshit crazy. I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen anything like it. Criterion hasn’t provided much in the way of extras, but this one is a must see for fans of a director who is very difficult to categorize.