Cast & Crew
There is a war in the world between the men and the women. A young girl tries to escape this reality and comes to a hidden place where a strange unicorn lives with a family: Sister, Brother, many children and an old woman that never leaves her bed but stays in contact with the world through her radio. Since the content of this picture is not as important as the pictures and allegories, the simple plot can not be described further.
Bruno De Keyzer
Black Moon (1975)
The idea for Black Moon came to Malle while he was finishing production on Lacombe, Lucien (1974). "It began with the fact that I wanted to shoot the film in my own house," the director said in an interview with David Bartholomew for Cinefantastique magazine. "Black Moon certainly comes very much from the place where I live, the kind of countryside around the house. There's something very ancient, maybe archaic, about it, also something...hostile." Malle also wanted to work again with the legendary German actress Therese Giehse whom he had just directed in Lacombe, Lucien and was famous as the first actress to play Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht's landmark play.
Malle recalled telling her that for his new movie he wanted "to give her a more important part. She said, 'I've been watching you. I think you should make a film where people don't talk.' I thought, that's a weird observation. She said, 'Think about it.' And she left...I decided to move on and keep myself busy...I had a dream of Therese Giehse in my bed - not an erotic dream, just a dream where she was occupying my bed and refusing to move. I had a couple of other dreams and I started writing them down. Then I thought, maybe this is a chance to do something that I've always thought of - the equivalent of Surrealism's automatic writing, but in film." With this concept in mind, Malle wrote a short screenplay with dialogue contributions from Joyce Bunuel (the daughter-in-law of Luis Bunuel) that allowed for improvisation along the way.
Walking a fine line between fantasy and reality with the two occasionally merging, Black Moon refuses to conform to a conventional storyline and a description of the fantastical events that take place could easily give one the wrong impression and misrepresent the cinematic experience Malle intended. The director was well aware of this, saying "I don't know how to describe Black Moon because it's a strange melange - if you want, it's a mythological fairy-tale taking place in the near future. There are several themes; one is the ultimate civil war...the war between men and women. I say the 'ultimate civil war,' because through the 1970s we'd been watching all this fighting between people of different religions and races and political beliefs. And this was, of course, the climax and great moment of women's liberation. So, we follow a young girl, in this civil war; she's trying to escape, and in the middle of the wood she finds a house which seems to be abandoned. When she enters the house, she obviously enters another world; she's in the presence of an old lady in bed, who speaks a strange language and converses with a huge rat on her bedside table. She goes from discovery to discovery - it's a sort of initiation." The film has obvious connections to the writings of Lewis Carroll as well as other films from the same period such as Robert Altman's Images (1972), which shares a similar fascination with unicorns, and Ingmar Bergman's bleak war allegory, Shame (1968). Malle freely admitted that Black Moon "conveys my admiration for and curiosity about Alice in Wonderland. And in the part I deliberately cast this English girl, Cathryn Harrison..."
The casting of the film, in fact, was an intriguing mix of professional actors and unknowns. The fifteen-year-old Harrison was the granddaughter of Rex Harrison and had made her film debut in Jacques Demy's 1972 version of The Pied Piper. Prior to Black Moon, she had played a significant role in the aforementioned Images and here she is an older version of Lewis Carroll's Alice wandering through a symbolic fantasy whose subtext is all about the emotions and fears of puberty. There is also an incestuous brother and sister with Alexandra Stewart, Malle's companion at the time, playing the latter. "...For months I tried to find her a male look-alike. At the last minute, I chose Joe Dallesandro [from Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1968) and Trash (1970)], which is one of the most surprising casting decisions I've made in my life. I had very much hoped to cast Terence Stamp but, I don't know, he was afraid or worried about the project." Last but not least is the enigmatic Therese Giehse who makes her final film appearance in Black Moon and died shortly after production ended.
According to David Bartholomew's article on Black Moon in Cinefantastique "the film was shot in and around Malle's own house and 225-acre estate located in the nearly unspoiled wild of the Dordogne valley in Quercy, near Cahors. The estate...is called, significantly, "Le Coual," or "The Crow's Call." The house itself is a 200-years-old manor which was used as a bivouac point for French partisans during World War II. Parts of Lacombe, Lucien were shot there, and both films were edited there." In fact, it was while Malle was working on Black Moon at "Le Coual" that he envisioned his new project, Pretty Baby, inspired by E.J. Bellocq's photographs of prostitutes from the Storyville District of New Orleans at the turn of the century.
To capture the look of Black Moon Malle hired Sven Nykvist, best known as the cinematographer who worked closely with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Malle stated that "When I prepared the film with Sven, we agreed that there should be no sun, it should be all cloud and flat light with no source and no shadows. The first three weeks here, we had blue skies every day. But we stood our ground, and we shot interiors, or at the very start of the day before the sun was up, or at sunset. There's not one scene in the film with sun. When I explained to Sven what I was trying to do, I think he understood, he felt ready for it. There was something about the project that immediately interested him."
Unlike previous feature films directed by Malle, Black Moon was a difficult film to market and received a very limited release in most countries. Even for the art house circuit, the film was a challenging anomaly and the critical reviews reflected a huge divide between the admirers and detractors. There was no middle ground. Pauline Kael, who had high praise for Malle's Lacombe, Lucien, hated Black Moon: "Louis Malle is temperamentally unsuited to the meandering, enigmatic, post-apocalypse fantasy he attempts here; he's a sane man trying to make a crazy man's film...There's no obsessive quality in the disordered vision, and no wit. It's deadly." Jean Roy of Cinema concurred, adding "what is really inadmissible here is that Malle has everything: 20 years of experience behind the camera; Therese Giehse, the creation of Brecht; Joe Dallesandro of Andy Warhol's Dracula , in which he showed us the acting potential he had hidden; Sven Nykvist, Bergman's cinematographer for 30 years. And with all this, the film accomplishes nothing."
Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times, however, wrote "Black Moon is so intensely personal and so very beautiful in its rich, autumn-hued imagery...and dynamic structuring that it avoids pretentiousness. For all its bold surrealism it retains a quaint, earthy charm and much humor." Another supporter, Gilles Colpart of La Revue du cinema, said "This most recent film of Malle's functions as the outcome of an evolution in expression, of naturalism (fiction filmed like a documentary), of a formal and visual liberation. All of the themes crystallize, in an explosion of representation of objects and forms, clearly marked by surrealism, that - at first glance - can't help but surprise the viewer." And there were many others who championed the film such as Susan Sontag who found it "mesmerizing" and David Bartholomew of Cinefantastique who wrote "Watching the film is a giddy, sense-drenching experience...There are a host of meanings to the film but no single Meaning. Black Moon can only be described, not explained."
Even Louis Malle admits that many of the choices he made in the film were intuitive and not scripted in a traditional manner. "It was one of my great flops at the box office," he admitted. "You can always expect a miracle, but I knew it was a difficult film...The fact that Black Moon was a full-length film made it difficult. This is something I considered seriously in the editing - cutting it down. I even had a cut which was just one hour; I had taken out a lot of scenes that didn't quite work." Still, Malle always had great affection for the movie and once stated, "I always insist on having it included in retrospectives of my work."
Producer: Claude Nejar
Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle, Ghislain Uhry, Joyce Bunuel
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Film Editing: Suzanne Baron
Art Direction: Ghislain Uhry
Music: Diego Masson
Cast: Cathryn Harrison (Lily), Therese Giehse (Old Lady), Alexandra Stewart (Sister Lily), Joe Dallesandro (Brother Lily).
by Jeff Stafford
Malle on Malle edited by Philip French
Louis Malle by Hugo Frey
The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis by Nathan Southern with Jacques Weissgerber
Cinefantastique,Vol.5 Number 1, interview with Louis Malle by David Bartholomew
Black Moon (1975)
Black Moon - BLACK MOON - Unlike Any Louis Malle Film You've Ever Seen Before!
Black Moon (1975) has never been on that list, even for Malle fans who stump for the controversial achievements of Murmur of the Heart (1971) and My Dinner with Andre (1981). A long-unseen product of the lingering Art Film epoch, now brought to DVD by Criterion, Black Moon is a freak in the Malle filmography - the man's only pan-European, proto-Surrealist-Freudian dream-film, with dollops of tangy dystopian sci-fi satire and Bergmanic identity crisis dropped in like sour cream. As a film of its day, however, it's lovably archetypal, sharing crazy style impulses and narrative impishness with the contemporaneous films of Luis Bunuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harry Kumel, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roman Polanski, not to mention Jaromil Jires's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967). Perhaps this is a large reason why in 1975 the film was so abjectly dismissed; Pauline Kael (always the go-to blabbermouthed voice of doom in those days, and the one most easily consulted today) condemned it as "witless" and "deadly." Her biggest point is sound - Malle tries with Black Moon to make a hallucinatory genius's film, a vision ostensibly bursting spontaneously from a unique, and even drug-addled, consciousness. But Malle is a sensible man, with earthly, easily grasped priorities, and the two tastes simply do not go well together.
Nearly half a century later, however, we're free of a weekly reviewer's narrow, short-term, zeitgeist-framed perspective, and in today's light Black Moon is a bizarre artifact of a freer, seemingly utopian cinematic age, when filmmakers trusted viewers to appreciate an experiment's zest and desire, and not worry too much about its results. Set in a fantasy-future Europe where the landscape has been ravaged by armed combat between the sexes, Malle's movie seems at first to be squaring off as a feminist (Malle was always interested in sexual exploitation as a social problem, but he also often seemed just as interested in undressing his actresses). The rebel guerrilla forces we see are all gorgeous women, captured and executed by an army of men, but this dynamic falls by the wayside, to some degree, as we follow escapee Lily (Cathryn Harrison) through the rural chaos, and to a seedy estate overheated with its own familial madnesses. The world of the film is, significantly or not, overrun with wildlife, from the first road-busy badger (quickly smushed) to legions of millipedes, sheep, roaches, turkeys, and even a Shetland unicorn that eventually speaks. A tribe of naked children are relentlessly chasing down a huge sow through the undergrowth. And so on.
Irrationality is the watchword. In the house a brother-sister pair of exchangeable, androgynous identical twins (Malle squeeze Alexandra Stewart and Warhol bad-boy Joe Dallesandro), who catatonically live out an ambiguous meta-sexual, semi-parental relationship with each other and with "the old lady" (Therese Giehse), a bedridden octogenarian who, at one point, is breast-fed by Stewart's ghostly dominatrix. A can-do Alice not so much lost in this particular, symbol-ridden Wonderland as willfully exploring it for curiosity's sake, Lily takes it all in stride, looking for answers but engaging in the absurdities as a child engages in a let's-pretend play scenario. As should we - the film is rich in metaphoric possibilities, but its position toward the abstractly suggested sexual awakening of its heroine is exultant and frivolous, not analytical, and in this sense Black Moon seems to comprise a sister-film of Jires's Valerie, together a misty diptych of pubertal dizziness and zonked hormonal dreams.
Nobody makes films like this anymore, this whimsically risky. Malle certainly never did again, wherever his peregrinations took him. All of 15, Harrison, Rex's granddaughter, doesn't act very much and isn't given much of a chance, but she's pure moviestuff - blonde, willowy and placid in the way that makes responsible men grow half-lidded and slackjawed. (Endearingly, her pimples come and go, scene to scene.) She's just one of the film's sensual affects; Malle is interested only in textures and disjunctures, images and vibes, and the film is rather beautiful in its silly inventiveness. Photographed by the legendary Sven Nykvist, shot entirely on Malle's estate in southern France, and released in dubbed English, Black Moon comes to video with only a few Criterion-grade supplements, including an alternate French soundtrack, an oddly dry essay by Ginette Vincendeau, and an old TV interview with Malle, in which he enjoys trying to attach lofty meaning to the film's nonsequiturs.
For more information about Black Moon, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Black Moon, go to TCM Shopping.
by Michael Atkinson
Black Moon - BLACK MOON - Unlike Any Louis Malle Film You've Ever Seen Before!
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1975
Released in United States 1975
Released in United States April 1988
Shown at 1975 Perth Film Festival.
Shown at New York Film Festival September 30 & October 2, 1975.
Shown at Louis Malle Retrospective at Museum of Modern Art, New York City April 1988.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1975
Released in United States 1975 (Shown at 1975 Perth Film Festival.)
Released in United States 1975 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 30 & October 2, 1975.)
Released in United States April 1988 (Shown at Louis Malle Retrospective at Museum of Modern Art, New York City April 1988.)