Black Moon

Young Lily’s Freudian odyssey is set in a nightmarish garden of Eden where animals can talk (argue, even), men and women wage a brutal war, and daughters breastfeed their mothers. From its forward by its director encouraging the viewer to “step into it, with your emotions, your senses”, Louis Malle’s Black Moon unfolds with a dream-like bewitchment.

The film opens as an eerie dystopia before taking a Carrol-esque trip down the rabbit hole. Fleeing what Malle referred to as “the ultimate civil war”, Lily traverses the countryside to find sanctuary at a farmhouse. Its inhabitants are a beautiful and incestuous brother and sister (who are, also, both named Lily), along with their bedridden mother who narrates the scenes through a two-way radio and dies repeatedly. The film moves through a tangled series of phantasmagorical visions that enact a cinematic form of automatist writing, an artistic method championed by the Surrealists that allows the unconscious mind to compose the narrative. The writer-director claimed, “each time something appeared that looked like a plotline, I would cross it out”, hence the anarchic narrative that makes futile any attempt to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

The film was shot in the director’s own 200-year-old estate in the Dordogne valley of Southern France, fittingly known as “Le Coual” or “The Crow’s Call”. He credited its atmospheric grounds for initially inspiring the film, stating that “there’s something very ancient, maybe archaic about it, also something… hostile.” On another occasion, he remarked that, “It began with the fact that I wanted to shoot the film in my own house,” (in a film about death, mothers and sexual awakening, Freud may have had something to say). Whatever his true motivation, the farmhouse was nonetheless transformed by Ingmar Bergman’s renowned cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, whose mastery of light flickers between muted naturalism and a sense of hyperreality.

Black Moon’s dominant reading has, naturally, been a psychoanalytic one – not coincidentally, considering the film was made during the height of the 1970s Women’s Movement in which the theory was enjoying a feminist resurgence. Ginette Vincedeau writes that “the film is structured along the logic of dreams and based in sexual allegory”, one which is “explicitly modelled on Alice in Wonderland”. Lily spends much of the film observing the behaviour of animals and adults, a curiosity that reveals a duality between her sexual intrigue and fear. The subjects of her gaze – the unicorn, the snakes that occupy the bedroom drawers, the horse on which sister Lily rides – expressions of her veiled desire.

Watching Black Moon, you can believe when Malle says, “I think predictability has become the rule and I’m completely the opposite – I like spectators to be disturbed.” If Alice’s foray down the rabbit hole is a protest against the etiquettes of adult conventionality, Malle’s cinematic trance goes one step further and denies it absolutely.

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