While traditional three act structure can often be a wonderful thing -- providing expertly plotted and constructed stories with clearly defined beginnings, middles, ends, character arcs, motives, twists, and various other developments -- some films' goals aren't to actually tell a story at all. Some films aim for something else entirely, to simply thrust us down the rabbit role, to pull us through the looking glass, to slap us across the face and open up our eyes to the infinite, swirling possibilities of surrealism. Where the irrational is the norm, where dreams lord over logic, where horrors and wonders walk hand in hand in a sparkling, twirling kaleidoscope of madness and delight. Filmmakers like Luis Bunuel, Jean Cocteau, Alain Resnais, David Lynch, and even more explicitly avant-garde directors like Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren, have all made shining examples of the cinematically abstract. Louis Malle's 1975 foray into dreamlike insanity, 'Black Moon,' attempts to capture that same intangible, mesmerizing mixture of almost formless beauty and dread. Unfortunately, the film never fully succeeds in that goal, and despite a few standout sequences and images, Malle's effort never comes close to reaching the same heights as his esteemed peers'.
Set during an unknown war, a young woman, Lily (Cathryn Harrison), escapes from a dystopian battlefield and takes refuge in a mysterious house. There she has various strange and bizarre encounters that leave all reason and rationality behind. The story itself isn't really of much importance, as Malle's goal here isn’t to weave a narrative, but to instead engender a more visceral experience of surreal imagery and situations, that take the audience on an abstract journey into the absurd and the grotesque. Inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll, in many ways the movie plays like a twisted 'Alice in Wonderland.' Throughout the film we come across everything from talking animals, to female soldiers in gas masks, to weeping flowers, philosophizing unicorns, old women being breastfed, and young, naked children herding sheep and pigs. While there certainly are connections to be made to man's relationship with nature, communication, and sexuality, and one could surely attempt to prescribe some kind of meaning, purpose, or method to all of this madness, that's not really the point. Ideally, the images and other-worldliness of the situations themselves, would work as a kind of means to an end, providing a powerful and stirring visual experience. Disappointingly though, with rare exception, that's just not the case.
The opening scenes are the strongest, and display a great command of mood and atmosphere. We start off with our young female protagonist on the road, driving through a vaguely post-apocalyptic war-zone, overcast in gloom and dread. We get no real sense of time or place, or how or why the world has come to be as it is, and this mysterious ambiguity is quite effective. When Lily eventually reaches the house, the eerie tone is successfully expanded upon and her slow exploration of the puzzling dwelling is a joy to watch. Up until this point, I was really quite impressed with and engaged in Malle's experimentation, but alas, things soon take a turn for the worse.
Basically, as soon as the characters open their mouths and begin to speak, the film goes downhill. Nonsensical, vague conversations add nothing to the proceedings and Lily's interactions with the strange family and animals she meets in the house, while certainly very, very weird, are completely uninteresting. The characters in the film really aren't characters, they're simply ciphers, lifeless echoes with nothing behind their eyes. This does successfully add a level of unsettling creepiness to their roles, but ultimately leaves little to build upon. The cinematography remains strong throughout, but nothing really stands out visually. There is a clunky quality to the whole thing, lacking any substantial vision or artistic drive. The concepts and ideas at work are all too oblique, and quite frankly, despite their oddness, banal. Sequences that are seemingly meant to be taken seriously instead come across as laughably pretentious. In fact, though as a fan of Malle it pains me to admit, parts of the movie play like a self-indulgent film school exercise, that never pull off the type of creativity that would justify their own self-important presentation. Instead, it's all just kind of… stupid.
I want to be clear that my problem with this film isn't the fact that it lacks inherent meaning, or that it's abstract or surreal. I love many films of this type. I love being challenged as an active viewer, constantly trying to form my own connections and meaning based on the implications forged on screen, or conversely, I love to simply let my mind go and allow the images to wash over me, setting my imagination on fire through both wondrous and disturbing visuals. My problem with 'Black Moon' isn't that it aspires for such a reaction. My problem with 'Black Moon' is that it fails to elicit such a reaction. The imagery and situations, though again extremely unusual, just aren't terribly interesting or inventive. With the exception of some early scenes, and a later, oddly affecting sequence which sees Lily playing the piano while a group of cherub like children (some now even wearing clothes) listen and sing along, most of the experimentation present just falls flat.
With 'Black Moon,' Louis Malle attempts to sail upon the shimmering seas of surrealism, but unfortunately his vessel just can't stay afloat. There certainly are some worthy bits and pieces sprinkled throughout, and had Malle perhaps excised all of the painful, albeit fleeting dialogue, and focused wholly on images alone, a stronger film could have possibly been made, but as it stands, 'Black Moon' is simply a lesser effort from a great director. Big fans of the avant-garde may still find this worthy of a look, and to be honest it has now officially usurped 'Dogtooth' as the strangest film I've reviewed thus far, which certainly counts for something. Even then though, there are much better examples of this type of filmmaking readily available on Blu-ray ('Last Year at Marienbad,' 'By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two,' 'Santa Sangre').
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion brings 'Black Moon' to Blu-ray in their standard clear case with spine number 571. The BD-50 region A disc comes packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC transfer in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Though never particularly impressive, 'Black Moon' looks just fine.
The print is in good shape with no visible signs of damage. A light layer of grain is present throughout, but there is an occasional, slightly processed look to certain shots, perhaps indicative of some minor enhancement. Detail can be good, but there is a softness prevalent in some sequences. Colors tend to be a bit drab and muted, going along with the film's intentional dark style of overcast doom. With that said, there are also momentary splashes of pleasing vibrancy in the palette, especially with greens. Black levels fluctuate a little, sometimes appearing elevated or crushed, but contrast is strong without being unnatural.
The transfer seems to present the original photography well, and even though there is a sporadic, faintly electronic quality to certain shots, most of the presentation is nice and filmic in appearance.
The audio is presented in an uncompressed English Mono PCM track along with optional English SDH subtitles. An additional French dub track is also included.
This is a fairly quiet film, with long, dialogue free stretches. When present, speech is technically clean with no audible crackles or hisses (though what's actually being said can still be painful to hear). All dialogue seems to have been added in post, so there are frequent syncing issues, but this is simply inherent to the filmmaking methods. Some characters, however, particularly the unicorn (I can't believe I just wrote that) have a hollow, mumbled quality to their delivery. Effects are handled well, giving a decent level of ambiance through a single channel of audio. Dynamics are fine, providing some welcomed aural distance between whispers and screeches. Bass activity is pretty nonexistent, but the earlier war scenes do offer a little low frequency presence. Balance between the elements is mostly good, but a few lines can be mixed a bit too low.
The audio in 'Black Moon' is never standout, and while a little on the thin side, it certainly gets the job done.
This is a pretty slim collection of supplements from Criterion, with only a brief interview, trailer, and a stills gallery, in addition to the aforementioned booklet.
'Black Moon' isn't completely without merit, and occasionally there are some truly strange, imaginative, and startling images, but as a whole, this is a subpar effort from a strong filmmaker. Video and audio are both solid but supplements are few and far between. For most this is likely a pass, but big fans of the odd and surreal might want to take a look. After all, it's hard to completely denounce any movie that has a talking unicorn.