Black Moon

Black Moon (Luna Nera) (1975)

Black Moon (Luna Nera) first published by Film4, July 2006

Summary: Louis Malle goes to Wonderland in his oddest film, co-written with Luis Buñuel’s daughter-in-law Joyce.

Review: Compile a list of those directors who have delved deepest into the human unconscious for their films’ images and ideas, and no-one would blink to see on it the names of Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Jan Svankmajer, or the Quay brothers; inevitably, however, Louis Malle would seem an odd man out, and only the most hardened connoisseurs of surrealist cinema would remain unsurprised at his inclusion in the ‘dream team’. After all, it would be on the strength of just one of his films, Black Moon, the impenetrable strangeness of which has ensured it only an obscure, largely forgotten place in the director’s otherwise familiar filmography. 

Co-written with Buñuel’s daughter-in-law Joyce, Dark Moon bears far more of the Spanish surrealist’s quirky hallmarks: animals wandering freely through a bourgeois household, insects in close-up, transgressive forms of eroticism, even the love duet from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, as used so prominently in Buñuel’s only feature-length collaboration with Salvador Dalí, L’Âge d’Or (1930). Most of all, though, there is a thoroughgoing engagement with the irrational that is foreign to Malle’s other works.

“Would you please tell me what’s going on around here?” asks the film’s adolescent protagonist Lily (Cathryn – granddaughter of Rex – Harrison), giving voice to the question that will be troubling all viewers. Clear answers are not forthcoming. After running over a badger at the film’s beginning, Lily has managed to evade the murderous soldiers on both sides of a war apparently being waged between men and women, and has followed a rotund unicorn to a farmhouse. There Lily encounters a bed-ridden old woman (Thérèse Giehse, who died shortly after shooting ended; the film is dedicated to her memory) whose only contact with the outside world appears to be via her CB radio – and who, when not conducting high-pitched conversations with an over-sized rat named Humphrey, or suckling on the breasts of her own daughter (Alexandra Stewart), suggests that Lily is deluded in her beliefs that there is a war going on or that unicorns exist. The unicorn, on the other hand, begs to differ, insisting that it is the old lady who does not exist. 

Meanwhile the old woman’s son (Joe Dallesandro), also called Lily, tends to the garden and communicates only through touch; naked children occasionally turn up in pursuit of a pig; and snakes seem to rear their head in every cranny that is not already occupied by centipedes, sheep, peacocks, horses, piglets, magpies, cats and eagles. Lily at first tries to escape from this looking-glass world, but eventually, for better or worse, finds a place for herself in it, so that she can go on nourishing her rich fantasy life instead of facing the more brutal ‘realities’ beyond the farmstead’s walls. 

Starting with its title and the name of its heroine (which together allude to the black moon Lilith associated by astrology with the hidden feminine and the psyche’s dark side), Malle’s film is a modern fairytale flush with arcane archetypes and enigmatic imagery – as though Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had been reworked by Jung. The only thing missing is a key, although it is at least possible to discern, encoded in the phallic unicorns and serpents, in the sensual gardener, and in young Lily’s metamorphosis from androgynous innocent to matronly nurturer, an underlying allegory of female sexual development. 

Still, the film’s dense symbology eludes any straightforward overarching interpretation, even if the disarmingly plain style in which Black Moon has been shot (by Ingmar Bergman’s favourite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist), dispensing with all the blurry dissolves, focal tricks or special effects that have come to characterise cinema’s dream sequences, belies the film’s hallucinatory status. Here, what you see is what you get, as crisp and simple as a fable – and also as rich and evocative.

Verdict: Uncompromising and inscrutable, this curiosity on the margins of the Malle canon is a heady treat for fans of the phantasmagorical.

Anton Bitel