Black Moon is the third film that I have watched by director Louis Malle. It is also, far and away, the most abstract and “art-house” of the bunch.
The story is that a woman named Lily (Cathryn Harrison) lives in a bleak future where a war has broken out between men and women (“a war between the sexes” as the wiki explicitly states). She eventually finds herself at a strange property with naked kids who run around with a pig, a strange old bedridden woman who communicates with a massive rat, people who seem to be resigned to absolute silence, and even a mangy unicorn. I am not used to reviewing abstract films that chose symbolism over a straightforward narrative, but I have to start somewhere.
First, let us look at the title “Black Moon.” Taken straight from the website Aqua Moonlight.
“In astrology, the Dark Moon is representative of the darker side of our nature, the negative side. It is the hidden depths that we know exist yet we prefer not to acknowledge. It is subtle on the surface, yet profound beneath. It is the foundations of our personality and the shocking truth that we often deny and project onto others instead.”
The site also says one of the names of an asteroid often used interchangeably with “Black Moon” is “Lilith” which, of course, ties everything to our protagonist.
Based on what I know about the 70’s, and what I assume are Malle’s more left-leaning politics, I believe that at least a part of the film (if not the whole thing) acts as a metaphor for abortion, as Roe v. Wade was just settled a few years before this film was released. This might be a bit too narrow, however, as another theory I had was that the film merely aimed to tackle the gender divide broadly.
The film’s wikipedia page seems to back this up, saying that the film has “an underlying subtext” that “offers a commentary on the Women’s Movement of the 1970s.” This hardly comes as a surprise seeing as we are introduced to a shooting war between men and women within the first ten minutes of the film.
Malle might be implying that this “darker side of our nature” is the existence of this division we fail to acknowledge in real life, but which comes to the forefront in the film. All conflict is now out on the table — all out in the open.
It would also seem that the protagonist of Lily seems to have some kind of regret. Aqua Moonlight says the “Black Moon” can often symbolize the shame that we feel for the role we played in some “dramatic” part in our lives.
“The Dark Moon is representative of the negative traits of guilt, shame, hatred, envy, and vengefulness, often brought about by personal wounds and hurts. The true dark side of things we try to hide,” the site says which, to me, further strengthens the argument that Lily is guilt-ridden over something. Whether or not her guilt stems from abortion, a relationship, or something else is never specified. Something is still eating away at her, as reflected by Harrison’s muted yet somber performance.
Of course the use of sounds from animals and plants, including some flowers that screech in agony when Lily crushes them or tears them from the ground, seems to suggest that Lily is struggling over the life of smaller organisms. The scene of her getting ambushed by small children while she tries to track down the ever-elusive unicorn gives one the idea of children preventing women from achieving their dreams. All of this seems to at least hint at the possibility that Malle was alluding, at least in part, to abortion.
To support this, Aqua Moonlight says the Black Moon, specified as “Lilith,” is a representation of the protective instinct mothers possess for their offspring. At the same time, it represents the fear of being tied down by motherhood,and the loss of individuality that accompanies it. It makes this allusion a contradictory one, but perhaps that is the point — to show the contradictions of women’s life.
You have the strength of motherhood put alongside with the feeling of imprisonment it imposes. You have the idealistic idea of dreams and the reality that they are far from looking pristine on the surface.
Perhaps, then, this film isn’t meant as a slight to motherhood so much as an ode to it. The final scene of the film shows Lily preparing to breast-feed the mangy unicorn. If the unicorn doesn’t represent her youthful dreams as she once expected, but rather being a mother (seems bad on the surface but there is something truly magical about it if you look deep enough) then it could be said that this final scene is meant to show Lily coming to terms with her role and accepting motherhood without reservations. Thanks to the use of imagery and visual storytelling to convey a message, the varying themes of this film can be taken in many different directions.
As I said before, I am trying to decipher what the film is trying to say without my opinions drowning out analysis. This movie is a surrealist trip, which makes it hard to rate. I had to think about it after it ended in an attempt to make sense of all the varying themes. Though none of the characters are particularly likable, they aren’t detestable either. Each seems to have a purpose as the representation of an idea to further advance the message: the old lady acting as both a symbol of motherhood and childhood, the silent wife acting as a stand-in for women at the time of the rise of 70’s feminism, the husband as the man, the unicorn as lost aspirations, and Lily as both the character we follow and a stand-in for everything that the “Black Moon” stands for metaphorically.
What I liked about this movie, and why I loved writing this review, is how many layers it has. The film also succeeds in conveying an otherworldly atmosphere throughout where you have no idea what is real and what isn’t (even the above poster uses one critic’s review calling it an “apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland”). So many scenes come in and just as quickly fade away. By the end I was debating whether or not the war itself was even real, or if Lily was imagining the entire thing. It is truly fascinating as a whole and the more I think about it, the more I find myself appreciating it.
Then there is the brilliant work of cinematographer Sven Nykvist. His beautiful style shines throughout, and might be best during a scene where Lily plays the piano among a group of children. Two of the children, one boy and one girl, stand side-by-side singing as a show of unity between the sexes. I suddenly felt as though I was watching Fanny and Alexander (a film Nykvist also shot and won an Oscar for), which is a huge compliment since I find Fanny to be one of the most beautiful films ever made. This scene was was the highlight of the film for me, and Nykvist is a huge reason for that.
This scene is soon followed by that of a man butchering an eagle, which alludes to a painting that hangs in the old lady’s bedroom. That man is later attacked by his wife, as if he has not only has stricken the bird dead, but her freedom as well. Their marriage and their lot of naked, wild children hold her down. Though she remains silent and calm for most of the film, save for her possible role in the war, by the end she cannot hold back and lashes out.
So while this film does hinge on a feminist message, Malle’s use of imagery over expository dialogue dulls the preachiness and makes it possible to draw multiple interpretations (case in point: my earlier self-debate over whether the film was pro-motherhood or anti-motherhood). Chances are I will revisit Black Moon in order to delve deeper into the many messages it presents and give an even more in-depth analysis.
Black Moon is a strange, bizarre little movie that I appreciate. Even if I’m not really a fan of feminist films I do enjoy movies that say a lot while not spoonfeeding information to its audience.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
P.S. A second viewing might end up altering the ratings a bit. I know that critics seem pretty divided on it, but that is exactly the reason why I am going to recommend the film. I feel like you will either love it or despise it — heck, I honestly thought I was going to fall into the latter category, but the more I think about it the more I like the movie.
Some Sources Consulted
Note: I watched “Black Moon” on Hulu