Director Louis Malle’s (My Dinner With Andre, Elevator to the Gallows) 1975 dive into surrealism, Black Moon, begins promisingly enough. In the near future, 15-year-old Lily (Cathryn Harrison) drives through the countryside, running over badgers as she flees the war that has erupted between men and women. This isn’t some small skirmish, we’re talking full-scale armed conflict. If you think of it from a Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus point of view, this isn’t just another war, or a reaction to a new wave of modern feminism, it’s also kind of intergalactic conflict, so that’s fun.
The premise is sound, and Black Moon evokes images from many of it’s surrealist forbearers. There are nods to Jodorowsky, Warhol, and Buñuel — the latter especially prominent as his daughter-in-law collaborated with Malle on the script — and the plot is propped up on an Alice in Wonderland framework, with heavy elements of a Homeric quest thrown in for good measure. And what’s not to like about a semi-post-apocalyptic battle of the sexes? That sounds like a good time to me.
My problem with Black Moon is that it becomes the kind of overindulgent, unnecessary ego stroking that makes me hate art, and by the end, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. As the film nears its climax you want something, anything, to happen, but then you realize this isn’t that kind of movie, and what you get instead is a ten-minute sequence of naked children singing. The whole thing is absurd, which I certainly realize is much of the point, and as it continues, the film becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously, or actually watch.
After escaping an all-male firing squad, and wrecking her car in the middle of the woods, Lily follows the mangiest unicorn to a country estate that initially appears abandoned, but she soon finds otherwise. There is a bedridden old woman (Therese Giehse), who primarily speaks in gibberish, suckles at her daughter’s teat, and is best friends with an enormous rat; a pair of androgynous siblings (Joe Dallesandro and Alexandra Stewart), both named Lily; a talking piglet in a high chair; and of course the aforementioned gang naked feral French children, because it’s not ’70s surrealist cinema without at least one naked child.
The majority of Black Moon watches like you took someone’s dream journal from the nightstand next to their bed and made a movie out of it. Things happen without motivation or cause, random moments are stitched together with only the most tenuous threads, and there are long slow shots of various insects crawling. There is almost no dialogue, and it is the random animals that do most of the talking. Malle creates a film where the characters communicate through nonverbal methods, but not in the usual ways this is accomplished, like body language and expression. No, in Black Moon characters talk through a sort of telepathy, just by looking at each other, or, primarily in Boy Lily’s case, through sensual touching.
Black Moon is an experiment, I get that. Malle wanted to do something different, to push the boundaries of what film can be. This is certainly different, but I think there is a very good reason it ranks among his least successful films. By the time you near the end Black Moon is so tedious, and dare I say boring and pointless, that I wished I had watched in fast-forward. Like I said earlier, fingers on a chalkboard.
Criterion just released Black Moon on DVD and Blu-ray, so you know at least some film scholars hold this film in high regard. And the transfer does look really nice, and Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is sharp and crisp when compared to the original film. However, it is not one of Criterion’s best efforts. The main centerpiece of the extras is 12 minutes of archival footage of Malle talking about the film. To a degree he explains some of his choices and reasoning, which of course were largely to defy reason, but mostly what he does is tell you what happens in the film, blow by blow. You know what happens, you just watched the movie, so it feels redundant, and there is little insight into the film. Beyond that, the disc comes with a trailer, some subtitle options, and a gallery of stills.
I had hopes for the booklet, but even that was a bit of a letdown. There is one essay from film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, but even that doesn’t make Black Moon feel like that important a film. Most of the pages are full of random photos and lists of credits, and all-in-all the pamphlet is at least half padding, with little substance to back it up. I expect more from you, Criterion.