Criterion // 1975 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 28th, 2011
An apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland!
"The girl? She just lost her bloomers and now she's eating the cheese."
Lily (Cathryn Harrison, The Dresser) is wandering the French countryside in an automobile, observing scenes of post-apocalyptic battle. After a while, she arrives at a sprawling country estate that is populated by a series of wild animals (some of which speak English from time to time), a pair of incestuous siblings (Alexandra Stewart and Joe Dallesandro), a mysterious old woman (Therese Giehse, Lacombe, Lucien), and a group of naked children. While there, Lily goes through one bizarre experience after another.
It is more or less impossible to enjoy Louis Malle's Black Moon in any conventional sense. The Blu-ray packaging describes it as, "one of Malle's most experimental films, and a cinematic daydream like no other." That is technically correct, but the experiment is an exasperating one and the daydream is one that many viewers may yearn to shake. The film is clearly inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which also offered the surreal story of a young girl working her way through a world of bizarre fantasy. However, Alice offers generous doses of charm, wit, and fast-paced wonder that keep the viewer captive despite the lack of narrative drive. Black Moon is largely a charmless, humorless and sluggish journey through a series of Freudian banalities.
Malle has openly admitted that the film was essentially an attempt to subvert traditional cinematic form, and during the process of writing the screenplay he was careful to scrap anything that might resemble a coherent narrative. The story is built on dream logic and moves in a peculiar manner reflecting that, but Malle's recreation of a dream is far less hypnotic and inexplicably correct than David Lynch's similarly dreamlike Inland Empire (a film every bit as incomprehensible as this one from a narrative perspective, but one that somehow continues to successfully assure viewers that there is meaning in its madness). There is enough explicit symbolism lurking within Black Moon to permit critics to formulate a persuasive explanation of the film's True Meaning, but I must be candid: no amount of insight into what Malle is getting at can detract from the fact that Black Moon is a largely tedious viewing experience.
There will be those who enjoy Black Moon, as the film frequently presents itself as a game of "spot the artistic reference" for intellectuals. Malle references assorted works of literature, paintings, and films throughout, but it feels more like an attempt to provide the illusion of depth than part of Malle's carefully-measured, intricate fabric. A vast portion of the symbolism is sexual in nature, providing the overall impression that Black Moon is fundamentally a surrealist portrait of a young woman's sexual awakening: naked feral children chase animals, snakes pop out of drawers, Lily's underwear keeps falling down, a young woman breastfeeds an elderly woman, Lily keeps chasing an elusive unicorn and so on.
Though the film is set in France and was made by a French director, the version of the film presented here is in English (though a large portion of the dialogue is dubbed). Malle claims to prefer the English-language version of the film, though honestly the dialogue is so obscure that it can almost be dismissed entirely. Characters occasionally spew vague irrelevancies, but lengthy passages of the film are silent save for a few grunts and bits of unintelligible gibberish. Some of the animals featured speak from time to time too, but their words are no more coherent than those of anyone else. It's difficult to judge the performances, as most of the actors are merely required to wander through the film as if they're performing some sort of daily routine. The occasional outbursts of intense emotion from Harrison lack any weight, simply because most of them seem to appear at random and it's impossible to tell whether anything is actually at stake.
The one unquestionably successful element of the film is the cinematography from frequent Ingmar Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, who brings a striking documentary-like realism to a series of fantasy-fueled images. His work is highlighted in a strong 1080p/1.66:1 transfer from Criterion, which is generally sturdy stuff despite some moments of softness and a little bit of black crush. Detail is excellent throughout (perhaps too excellent, as the unicorn looks even more fake than it might have in standard-def), flesh tones are warm and there's a pleasing layer of natural grain left intact. The mono audio is sturdy, highlighting the sparse but fascinating sound design (some of the animals make the most marvelous noises at times). With little music and dialogue present, this is a track dominated by the peculiar bits of sound Malle has delivered. Extras are on the slim side: a brief archival interview with Malle, some behind-the-scenes photos, a trailer and a booklet featuring a glowing yet slightly perplexed essay from film scholar Ginette Vincendeau. I would have loved a documentary or commentary on this particular film, if only to gain further insight in terms of figuring out what exactly Malle was up to with this one.
While those who enjoy surreal cinema simply for its own sake may find Black Moon a hypnotic experience, I found it frustratingly empty despite its technical virtues. It's wildly ambitious, but that ambition produces very little. Proceed at your own risk.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery