Black Moon (1975) Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Gloria Steinem Meets Lewis Carroll

I don’t know the exact definition of a “black moon” just as I’m not exactly clear on the definition of a blue moon. As opposed to a blue moon – I’d consider it to be a month without a full moon. And what that has to do with this 1975 film by Louis Malle, recently released by The Criterion Collection makes about as much sense as the rest of the film.

I’ve seen a few early films of Louis Malle – he directed a part of Spirits of the Dead and a wonderful coming-of-age film in Murmur of the Heart (1971). He entered the American film psyche with three interesting and critically acclaimed films in Pretty Baby (1978), Atlantic City (1981) and My Dinner With Andre (1981). In between those films he released what is best called a “surreal” fantasy.

I’m tempted to just dismiss this film. I felt at first that whatever message there may have been in the story or the filmmaking technique was lost to 1975. There’s little to no dialogue and the plot is ill defined at best. I figured there was a reason that I had never even heard of the film until this recent release. But I’ve taken a closer look at the film and I give credit to the folks at Criterion that they are always going to release films that challenge the viewer.

A simple description of the plot at this point would make sense in regards to providing the reader with a framework to discuss the film but I’m at wits’ end to come up with even a short blurb that would fit on the back of a Blu-ray jacket. Our main character, Lily (Cathryn Harrison) escapes what appears to be a civil war of some kind in her car. The war seems to be between the sexes as we see a line of women being shot down in cold blood. Lily escapes to an old country estate inhabited by an old woman and twins (her son/daughter?) both named Lily (I do recognize the male of the twins as Joe Dallesandro from the Warhol movies of this era). I should mention here that in addition to the characters there are loads of talking animals and a handful of nude children running around the estate. At some point the old woman disappears and the twins fight and the unicorn talks (yes, the unicorn) and Lily becomes the old woman. The end.

The only way to watch this movie initially is to just let it wash over you. Don’t try to figure it out as it goes – let it just unfold. It’s obvious that there is more going on under the surface than we are watching happen as a series of images. Some shots by cinematographer Sven Nykvist are just breathtaking. The new high-definition transfer in 1.66:1 ratio on an HDTV looks better than it possibly could have looked in 1975. Once you give in to the new reality of the world of the film – without trying to put the conventions of our world upon it – the plot seems to emerge from the fog of events happening. Maybe my brain put the events there to connect the dots or maybe I finally could see beyond the hallucinatons.

At it’s most obvious, the film plays as an Alice In Wonderland in the feminist world of the mid-’70s. Lily’s trip down the rabbit hole takes place in her car. On the way, she witnesses the brutality of man to women in her society. The world she arrives in at the manor is strange to her. She sees flocks of sheep, almost feral children running around and a unicorn. The old woman as the Queen of Hearts isn’t a perfect translation but it’s close. The woman is mean to Lily at first. But when Lily sees the brother and sister (both images of parts of herself) taking care of the old woman (the sister breastfeeds the old woman in a symbol of the daughter becoming the parent) and Lily rebels. The first two acts of the film is Lily’s rebellion against the male-dominated world – her annoyance with the young children and pursuit of the unicorn as a symbol of raw sexuality.

But there’s a turning point that starts the third act at just over the hour mark where Lily is chastised by the object of her desire – the Unicorn. He is disgusted with her behavior towards Nature and the children. Lily makes her breakthrough when the children sing along to a Wagner opera that she’s playing on the piano. As the children take their direction from her lead we can see the transformation in Lily. She is not just sexually awakened but she has accepted the mature idea of becoming a woman. She will eventually take on the role of mothering the old woman (offering her a breast to feed as she had seen earlier – even carrying the old woman around like a baby). But the old woman will disappear after her acceptance. The male and female twins will fight in a power struggle but we won’t see the results as they are banished from the grounds. The film will end with Lily fully awakened to her womanhood – finally able to provide the Unicorn with what he needs to.

The story that starts as Alice In Wonderland drifts further away from that allegory into a story of the woman’s movement of the decade and a larger story of women in general. It’s a theme that Malle would address even more specifically in Pretty Baby and to a certain extent in Atlantic City. He likes the power of that sexual awakening in young characters. But there’s many surreal scenes to wade through to get there. There’s still a talking rat and loads of sheep and a shaggy unicorn.

This isn’t a film for everyone. There isn’t a linear story to hang on to. What happens in one scene may have nothing to do with what happens next. This lack of cause and reaction is what defines “surreal”, I guess. But our brains are fully equipped to handle stories like this. I’ve let it settle over mine for the past couple days and I can’t say that I am not intrigued by it.

The Blu-ray Special Features won’t illuminate the story for you completely. There’s an interesting interview from the timeframe with Louis Malle, some photos, a trailer and a booklet that starts to put the film into historical perspective. Louis Malle may have taken this dark month and created a dream world. It doesn’t mean we all can see it for what he meant it to be but it’s fun to peer into his world.

Shawn Bourdo

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