Louis Malle has never been the sort of filmmaker critics could easily pigeonhole in terms of his style and interests. He’s worked in practically every film genre (thriller, social satire, melodrama, documentary, etc.) and his restless curiosity has led him to explore a vast array of subjects from underwater life (The Silent World, 1956) to sexual liberation (The Lovers, 1958) to life under the Nazi occupation (Au Revoir, Les Enfants, 1987). Yet, for even an iconoclast like Malle, his 1975 film Black Moon is unlike anything he’s ever done before or since. “Opaque, sometimes clumsy, it is the most intimate of my films,” he once said. “I see it as a strange voyage to the limits of the medium, or maybe my own limits.”
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…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.”
The Criterion Collection released Black Moon on DVD and Blu-ray in October 2011 with supplementary features such as an archival interview with Louis Malle on the film and it is still the best option for viewing this offbeat movie.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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