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Black Moon may well deserve the title of Louis Malle’s film maudit. The release in September 1975 of what he called his “mythological fairy tale taking place in the near future” disconcerted many, especially as people had expected him to follow up on his previous work, the groundbreaking German-occupation drama Lacombe, Lucien (1974). As a result, the film was his least successful at the box office, and despite receiving two Césars in 1976, it remained until recently one of his most difficult to see.
Black Moon opens as quasi science fiction—there seems to be some kind of nuclear war going on, with soldiers wearing gas masks—but immediately evolves into an elaborate surrealist fantasy. In a deserted countryside, a fair young woman (Cathryn Harrison) fleeing the armed conflict stumbles upon a series of animals, ranging from the rural—a badger, pigs, sheep, snakes, and a horse—to a mythical unicorn. Narrowly escaping being shot, she ends up in a beautiful mansion that is itself overrun by animals, those she has seen outside now joined by a tame rat and an eagle, among others. The human inhabitants of the house are an androgynous and incestuous brother and sister couple, possibly twins (played by Alexandra Stewart and Joe Dallesandro), who, like the heroine, are both called Lily, and their bedridden elderly mother (Thérèse Giehse, who had played the grandmother in Lacombe, Lucien and whom Malle credited with indirectly generating Black Moon by suggesting that he make a film without dialogue; he dedicated the film to her, as she died before it was released). Although Black Moon was produced in an English and a French version—and Malle stated that he preferred the English one—language is reduced to a few grunts, a minute amount of intelligible dialogue, and animal noises. The film is instead replete with surrealist images, such as a talking piglet in a child’s high chair, decapitated animals, feral naked children driving pigs or sheep, and both the female twin and the heroine at one point breast-feeding the old woman.
As Georgiana Colville, one of the few scholars to examine Black Moon closely, argues, if Malle’s take on surrealism was relatively spontaneous in Zazie dans le métro (1960), in this film, it is “more consciously elaborated.” But this high level of consciousness, even self-consciousness, distinguishes Black Moon not just from Zazie but also from the work of the key surrealist filmmaker of the time, Luis Buñuel. That relationship is particularly pointed, as Joyce Buñuel, the filmmaker’s daughter-in-law, was a writer on Black Moon, and a shot of ants crawling over a piece of cheese is surely meant to evoke the iconic shot of ants in a man’s hand in Buñuel and Dali’s 1928 avant-garde film Un chien andalou. But by the 1970s, Buñuel had moved on from his iconoclastic first phase and was embedding his surrealist imagery and symbolism into classic narratives populated by bourgeois characters and glamorous stars (as in the 1967 Belle de jour), and as a result had met with popular success. By contrast, Malle in Black Moon cast “alternative star” Dallesandro (from Andy Warhol’s films) alongside relative unknowns, and attempted, as he stated, the equivalent of the surrealist practice of automatic writing. He eschewed narrative logic, claiming that “each time something appeared that looked like a plotline, I would cross it out,” thus producing an anarchic set of events and opaque metaphors that both defy and demand critical scrutiny.
The dominant interpretation, unsurprisingly, has been psychoanalytical, propounded by many writers, including the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Black Moon is clearly structured along the logic of dreams, and based in sexual allegory. It is a tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening, explicitly modeled on Alice in Wonderland, which dictated, among other things, Malle’s choice of the British actress Cathryn Harrison (granddaughter of Rex Harrison) and his preference for filming it in English. Colville offers the best sustained analysis in this vein, pointing out, for example, Lily’s positioning as an onlooker, frequently seen on a threshold or at a window, observing the adults’ and animals’ behavior. Throughout the film, a series of images reflects both her sexual curiosity and her sexual fears: most obviously, the unicorn—“Lily’s as yet unrealized desire,” as Colville writes—but also the horse on which the sister Lily is seen, the snakes that erupt from drawers, the frequent echo of Lily’s behavior in that of the animals, and such violent images as the decapitation of the eagle. The literate spectator can thus enjoy decoding these images—including the opaque symbolism of the “black moon,” an astrological hieroglyph connected with the unicorn and female sexuality—as well as the abundance of painterly, literary, and cinematic references that Black Moon offers (for instance, the heroine is at various points seen sitting in languid poses by the open fire, a clear nod to Balthus’s 1930s erotic paintings of young girls). But Black Moon is not confined to such intellectual games, and we can actually see it also as a film of its moment, both in terms of the culture at large and of Malle’s own trajectory.
Malle himself hinted, in a later interview, that the overarching sexual rationale of his film was not simply based in mythology when he stated that the combat we see at the beginning is “the ultimate civil war . . . the war between men and women . . . the climax and great moment of women’s liberation.” And indeed, we do see in one early scene men lining up women and shooting them dead, and later some women molesting a man. The year 1974, when Malle was shooting Black Moon, was the heyday of second-wave feminism in France. It is notable that while his early films, from Elevator to the Gallows in 1957 to The Fire Within in 1963, are set in contemporary France, after that date, his feature films are set in the past (Le voleur, 1967; Murmur of the Heart, 1971; Lacombe, Lucien; Au revoir les enfants, 1987; May Fools, 1990) and/or abroad (Viva Maria!, 1965; Pretty Baby, 1978; Atlantic City, 1980). Whereas Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers (1958), via the characters played by Jeanne Moreau, were explorations of the sexual mores of the contemporary woman, and Zazie dans le métro those of the child/adolescent, in the French context, one could see Malle’s flight into the past and to distant (including mythological) lands as also something of a flight from contemporary women—now no longer elegant playmates (as in The Lovers) or tomboys on the brink of important change (as in Zazie) but going through full emancipation and thus more challenging. Malle certainly wasn’t guilty of the kind of overt misogyny seen in some filmmakers’ reactions to the rise of feminism and women’s liberation (Bertrand Blier’s Les valseuses in 1974 and Calmos in 1976, to name but two), but while praising “the great moment of women’s liberation,” he chose nevertheless to retreat into fairy tales, exotic locations, erotic high art, and the past.
With Black Moon, Malle also “retreated” to the country, and more precisely his estate in the wild, beautiful Causses region of southwest France—not far from the town of Figeac, where Lacombe, Lucien was shot. His biographer, Pierre Billard, talks of how important Malle’s estate at Le Coual became for him, partly as a holiday home for his children, one of whom he had with Alexandra Stewart. Sven Nykvist, director of photography on many Ingmar Bergman films, renders the harsh and wintry beauty of the area in muted colors, as well as through such startling images as the one toward the end of the film in which the house is framed with vast crowds of sheep and turkeys in front of it. He renders in warmer tones the sprawling interiors—country kitchen, bedrooms, and sitting rooms, cluttered with plush sofas, paintings, and a surrealist jumble of antique objets d’art. Nykvist’s photography (for which he was deservedly awarded a César) enhances the intrinsic beauty of the location; the film becomes almost a documentary on an important part of Malle’s universe—and it’s worth noting in this context that Black Moon is bracketed in the director’s filmography by several documentaries, a genre he worked in continuously in parallel with his fiction work.
Malle would, however, not remain for long at his country retreat. Soon, he would go to America, where he made a trio of successful films in rapid succession—Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, and My Dinner with André (1981)—a rare achievement for a French filmmaker. Looking back, it’s now clear that Black Moon was a pivotal moment in his career. While earlier films of his were steeped in French literature and the French language (Elevator to the Gallows, The Lovers, Zazie dans le métro, and The Fire Within), Black Moon, with its minimal dialogue and non-French actors—Harrison (British), Dallesandro (American), Stewart (Canadian), and Giehse (German)—was pointing the way toward the second phase of the director’s career. Filmmakers often tend to favor their least popular films, but here, one can believe Malle when he says that Black Moon is “the most intimate of my films. I see it as a strange voyage to the limits of the medium, or maybe my own limits.”
Ginette Vincendeau is a professor of film studies at King’s College London. Her books include Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, La haine, and The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks (with Peter Graham). She is currently writing a book about Brigitte Bardot.