Monday, July 11, 2011

The milky way: Louis Malle's Black Moon

Black Moon (1975) opens with the initially serene image of a badger innocently snuffling its way across a quiet rural road… only to meet sudden death under the wheels of our heroine’s smart little orange Euro-hatchback. The badger’s shocking accidental demise is our entrée into this film’s distinctively violent world, violent in the literal sense—there’s some sort of war going on, apparently between the sexes, with early scenes involving young men executing a line-up of young women by firing squad, and young women tormenting and molesting some young men—and violent in the figurative sense, with its almost total absence of exposition, its dearth of intelligible dialogue (though there is a conspicuous quote from Macbeth), and its succession of bizarre images and encounters that never accumulate into anything so pedestrian as coherent causality. Black Moon proved to be something of a bête noir in Louis Malle’s formidable oeuvre, a fantastical, anti-allegorical, sumptuously photographed (by Ingmar Bergman’s long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist) work that greatly rewards those viewers inclined to shrug off things like narrative logic in favour of sustained fascination, beauty, and mystery. It’s now available on DVD and blu-ray from Criterion, who’ve made a special project of heralding Malle’s legacy.

Our protagonist, Lily (Cathryn Harrison), is an Alice-figure hovering somewhere between adolescence and womanhood, apparently oblivious to her nascent sex appeal. She finds herself at a country manor inhabited by a small, elderly woman (Therese Giehse) confined to a bed and two young, mute adults (Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey “superstar” Joe Dallesandro and Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart), each of whom seem to communicate primarily through telepathic touch, and a gang of rowdy naked kids who vanish at random. There are a great many non-human inhabitants of this house and its surroundings as well, including pigs, turkeys, a unicorn, a snake, a chorus of sheep, and flowers with feelings to hurt. Lily’s central action throughout is to look at things, most often astonishing or alarming things, and Malle and Nykvist manage again and again to render the images of her looking captivatingly. The most notable shift in
Black Moon finds Lily gradually coming to understand that the old woman’s survival, and perhaps that of others she meets, is dependent on breast milk, and the film draws to its close with Lily resolving to offer her breast up to one in need.

Malle’s work frequently concerned sexual development in children, most obviously in films such as
Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Pretty Baby (1978), and while its tempting to regard Black Moon as purely surrealist—especially given that one of the script’s co-authors is Joyce Buñuel, daughter-in-law of filmmaker and one-time card-carrying surrealist Luis Buñuel—there are a number of elements that prompt an interpretation in keeping with this over-arcing Mallesque theme. Many of Lily’s encounters impart a heightened awareness of gender, sensuality and the body as a site of numerous forms of erotic interest, hidden threat, and corporeal need. Not to mention the scenes where Lily reaches across a table for a giant-sized glass of fresh milk or the fairly straightforward symbolic possibilities generated from the aforementioned snake and unicorn. I don’t want to pigeonhole Black Moon so much as address some of its fecund multiple readings. It’s a delightfully perplexing film. It’s a bestiary. And it’s one of the most beguiling weirdo-discoveries on home video this year.

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