Published on January 15th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Black Moon 
Summary: This French/German avant-garde fantasy flick makes itself very difficult to like. There are a few striking images but most of the time you'll just be asking yourself 'What the hell?'
NR | 100 min.
Director: Louis Malle | Screenplay: Louis Malle, Joyce Buñuel, Ghislain Uhry
Starring: Cathryn Harrison, Therese Giehse, Joe Dallesandro, Alexandra Stewart
Country: France & West Germany | Distribution: 20th Century Fox (USA)
The folks at The Criterion Collection do a great service to cinema by keeping movies on the shelf that may have otherwise faded into obscurity. Most film buffs have gone through their phase of hunting down titles with the Criterion logo slapped on the spine and feeling very sophisticated after the picture ended. Some of my favorite discoveries have come via Criterion–titles like The Bad Sleep Well (1960), AMARCORD (1973) and Brazil (1985) were films I would have likely never seen had it not been for their company, but sometimes I think they throw their seal on anything that just appears avant-garde.
When I came across Black Moon at the library, I saw its striking cover, read its evocative description (“This bizarre and bewitching trip down the rabbit hole…”) and saw the Criterion seal of approval. I had absolutely nothing else to go on but I took it home, popped it in and went on a trip to a Wonderland better left untouched.
Black Moon is every stereotype of an arthouse film rolled into one. Random nudity that you don’t want to see, sparse poetic dialogue, a storyline that goes nowhere and even some opera music permeating its soundtrack. Growing up as a huge The Simpsons fan, it honestly reminded me of Barney Gumble’s Pukahontas at the Springfield film festival–an obvious sendup of all the things we hate about pretentious cinema–except it was dead serious.
This French/West German picture creeps to a start as a possum sits in the middle of an empty road in the countryside, you know what’s coming but it’s still a fairly tense scene. Suddenly, a comical orange car rolls by containing our main character, a young girl named Lily (Cathryn Harrison). It’s obvious from the start that Lily is very different from the war-torn country she’s driving through–men and women are waging a war against one another, letting their guns and bombs do the talking as there are only two lines of dialogue in the film’s first 25 minutes. The colors are drab but Lily has gorgeous blond hair, drives a bright orange car and has a look that came straight out of American Apparel complete with a pink cardigan and high-waisted skirt.
A lot of things are doing battle in Black Moon, Lily is stuck between child and adulthood, not wanting to embrace either side and fighting them both off violently in various scenes. She seems to shout like an attention-starved kid when she speaks, she guzzles milk down like a baby and can hardly walk without falling on her face. Yet at the same time, she’s sexualized in several scenes as both a man and a snake attempt to make their way up her skirt and she also seems to have quite a grim imagination. Much of the confusion in Black Moon‘s thin plot derives from the viewer not knowing if they’re seeing reality or just a child’s fantasy. I took everything at face value until about 30 minutes in when Lily begins chasing a unicorn (something that will last the rest of the film), and then I realized she may not be all there.
I feel like the script of this movie couldn’t have been longer than 12 pages. There is so little spoken dialogue throughout and most of the time it just feels like the actors are making it up as they go along–especially Lily whom we follow as she meanders from room to room in a large mansion that serves as the picture’s primary setting. The only other characters of any weight in Black Moon are a pair of twenty-something siblings named Brother Lily (Joe Dallesandro) and Sister Lily (Alexandra Stewart) as well as their infirmed, unnamed Mother (Therese Giehse).
The characters are all representative of some portion of Lily’s life with Brother being her independent, curious and passionate side while Sister is mothering, nurturing and quite utilitarian. Also in direct contrast are the talking unicorn (yep!) Lily is chasing and the Mother character that she keeps being drawn to. The unicorn offers up lines of Shakespeare and questions Lily on her lack of compassion for some of the world’s creatures while Mother is mean-spirited, judgemental and also quite needy. By the end, Lily has embraced each side and made no real choice regarding what is most important to her.
If you watch Black Moon, be prepared to constantly be asking, ‘What the hell?’ Weird shit just happens in this movie. The unicorn is the most half-assed creature I’ve ever seen–it’s essentially a fat shetland pony with a churro on top of its head. There is a group of naked children that chase pigs and sheep and at some points attack Lily then begin singing opera duets. Honestly, the naked kids make for some very uncomfortable situations if anyone sees you watching this film–I think people have gone to jail over images with less underage nudity than this movie contains. And don’t even get me started on when Lily and Sister begin breastfeeding Mother…at that point I had already switched off mentally.
There are some very good lines in the movie though such as when the unicorn tells Lily, “The most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.” One intense exchange between Lily and Mother provides some poetic thoughts on life and death: “How could my love die, how could the endlessly living perish? …All is illusion. Set us free of this world.” These lines are delivered with terrible dubbing and in such a distracted manner that it substantially takes away from their weight.
Black Moon is also well-paced by director Louis Malle and editor Suzanne Baron. It’s nearly two hours long but didn’t seem to drag mostly because you’re waiting to see what messed up image awaits you next. The movie does however test your patience greatly with its sheer pretension. Also, I didn’t get tired of seeing Lily because Cathryn Harrison is shot in such a beautiful way that you can’t help but be pulled into her.
Word to the wise: if you’re hunting Criterion Collection films, don’t take the label at face value. After all, this is the company slapped their seal of approval on Michael Bay’s Armageddon…no kidding.