Director: Louis Malle
Starring: Cathryn Harrison, Thérèse Giehse, Alexandra Stewart, Joe Dallesandro
Duration: 100 min.
After skirting the horrors of a mysterious war being waged in the countryside, beautiful young Lily takes refuge in a remote farmhouse, where she becomes embroiled in the surreal domestic life of an extremely unconventional family.
Black Moon is a 1971 film written and directed by Louis Malle, and was filmed almost entirely on Malle's own 225 acre estate in the Quercy region of France. It was recently digitally restored and released on Blu-Ray by The Criterion Collection.
This is a film often and aptly described as a post-apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland. It takes place in an alternate dream reality and follows the adventures of a young and wide eyed girl named Lily (played by a 15 year old Cathryn Harrison, grand daughter of screen legend Rex Harrison). As the film begins, she is dressed in a fedora and trench coat and is seen running over a badger while driving her little Honda Z600 through the battle zone of a bloody civil war being fought between men and women. Yes, quite an image to start off with, and it only gets stranger.
She soon finds herself on an old remote farmhouse inhabited by a bed ridden old crone who communicates with the outside world through a strange radio (Thérèse Giehse in her final screen appearance); two androgynous, lookalike incestuous siblings who are both also named Lily (Alexandra Stewart and Joe Dallesandro); and a dozen or so of their rambunctious children, who spend the bulk of the film naked and chasing various farm animals around. Among the many animals Lily encounters include various snakes, a large talking rat, and an unusual looking fat black unicorn.
Despite being a French film, the dialogue is almost entirely in English, along with a few lines of what sounds like German, and also a bunch of gibberish spoken by the old woman to the rat. Joyce Buñuel, daughter in law of legendary surreal filmmaker Luis Buñuel, is credited for helping write the dialogue, though there really isn't much of it at all, the first word isn't heard until almost 17 minutes in, and even that is simply an unanswered shout of "Hey!". Not that it matters, this film is all about the nightmarishly grey cast mood and the fantastic metaphoric visual imagery.
Dark and increasingly suggestive images fill the screen, slithering snakes, flowers that weep, a talking unicorn, and scenes of violence between men and women; all of which overtly allude to the sexual awaking of Lily. To achieve the look of the film, Malle chose to shoot primarily during dawn and dusk in order to avoid sunshine and shadows; and his vision is fully realized by long time Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who won a Cesar award for his efforts here.
What drew me in aside from the bizarre imagery was the lack of film tricks used to express a dream state. The film is shot without any of the haziness, soft focus, dissolves, and film speed techniques that we associate with dream sequences. Everything is clear except for Lily's reality which changes from scene to scene, and the sky which is always grey. Admittedly, not everyone will appreciate this type of presentation because it challenges us to ignore what we know and accept what is shown, going along with it as Lily must, embracing instead of questioning the confusion. But those who can are rewarded with one of the most imaginatively crafted cinematic reveries they will ever see.
With Black Moon, Malle has created a bewildering film filled with Freudian symbolism that depending on your sensibilities could either be a fascinating subconscious exploration of budding adolescent sexuality, or simply random self indulgent nonsense. But if you are a fan of surreal films with unexplained and mysterious themes like me, this one is a real treat, one that is enhanced greatly by Criterion's always stunning remastering job.
— Bonjour Tristesse