Black Moon: surreal film on death and rebirth that satirises political, cultural and social issues of 1970s

Louis Malle, “Black Moon” (1975)

A curious film this is, based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, in which Alice figure Lily (Cathryn Harrison) is fleeing a civil war and ends up in a mysterious remote country mansion where the normal logic of life she is used to is completely overturned. Here, humans are mute but animals speak and plants scream; an elderly woman (Therese Giehse) stays in bed all day, listening to her radio and being breast-fed by one of her children, Sister Lily (Alexandra Stewart); feral naked children romp around the grounds with a pig; a strange young man, Brother Lily (Joe Dallessandro), communicates to Lily by touch; and the only being Lily can have a rational conversation (well, sort of) with is a tubby black unicorn.

The pivotal point of the film after a series of rather comic and twee sketches that involve Lily running all over the place, trying to understand what’s going on, and throwing temper tantrums in frustration is in the evening lounge-room scene in which Lily plays a piece from “Tristan und Isolde” on piano that becomes ever more deranged before a group of the feral children. Immediately after this piece, the sun rises and Lily witnesses Brother Lily decapitate an eagle with a sword, emulating a scene in a painting in which an Indian Hindu prince does the same. Later, while Brother and Sister Lily fight each other almost to the death with knife and stave, and army forces from outside surround the mansion, Lily retires to the old woman’s bed and offers to breast-feed the unicorn which has mysteriously appeared.

The film has a stream-of-consciousness dream narrative which explains the loose structure in which incidents come and go and viewers are left scratching their heads at whether there is any connection or meaning that will become apparent later in the film.

“Black Moon” is really very mystifying and I must confess that after reading a review on the IMDb database that a lot of things became clearer. If one refers to pre-Christian Germanic mythology, some things do make sense: Lily represents the birth of a new world (as demonstrated when she enters the bed of the old woman who represents the death of the old world) and Brother and Sister Lily are her children who in their fighting represent the dualities that might be inherent in human nature and indeed the cosmos. The most basic duality in humans is the male-female one and the opposition between men and women is a theme threaded right through the film. The eagle might represent one of Odin’s messengers that fly over the world during the day and report back to him at night; its death might represent the battle of Ragnarok. The unicorn carries the horn that itself contains the antidote to the poison of conflict, violence and warfare including chemical, biological and nuclear warfare.

The cinematography is beautiful and includes close-up shots of centipedes, a praying mantis and snakes (symbols of fertility) with one close-up concentrating on a snake crawling up Lily’s leg while she’s lying on the old woman’s bed and into … well, you can guess. The symbolism in this part of the film should be obvious to all but the very young or very naive. The three young actors themselves have quite an unearthly, almost pre-Raphaelite beauty.

The film isn’t intended to impart a message or whack viewers over the head about what they’re doing to the planet: it’s a reflection of Malle’s times and the social, cultural and political issues prevalent then, expressed in a way that perhaps satirises them in a gentle way. The absurd nature of the film points up the absurd nature of many of humanity’s concerns and obsessions which block our connection to nature. In our world, only animals and plants make any sense and perhaps speak the truth, however strange it may be.

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