Monday, February 26, 2007

Black Moon

Back in the days before everything was verbalized and ‘wiki’ became the favourite prefix of the masses, Louis Theroux (cheeky scamp from the prairies of television land) hosted a show by the name of Weird Weekends. As suggested by its befitting title, the British series bayed to the common human craving to see on-screen something differing from the regular quotidian banality that suffocates us daily, to take that generic norm and invert it, allow us not simply to chuckle and mock the Other, but to take, by way of contrast, reassurance of our own lives. During these bizarre bookends to the week, Louis would visit coteries of the disenfranchised and ostracised (often, it must be noted, accorded these statuses for good reason – read: white supremacists), explore their idiosyncratic mores and perhaps provoke some humorous episodes along the way.

In 1975, another Louis, this one branded with the surname of Malle, delved into a pit of weirdness, fumbling the peculiar syllables in the word Strange, then hurtled the results full-throttle towards the screen. Only this Louis, rather than discovering a congress of outlandish ants under a rock marked Society, manufactured both ants and rocks, engraving the interplay between the two: Black Moon.

One of the French New Wave’s most enjoyable jazz connoisseurs, Louis Malle takes a dip into the surreal with this film. With a predilection for fairy tales under one arm, and a resolve to look beyond the present under the other, Malle creates an odd mix of apocalyptic conflict and phantasmagoric imagery. The story, if one can discern such a thing, concerns a feisty nubile named Lily who, forced off the beaten track by a horde of militants, comes across a house in the countryside inhabited by a deranged, bed-ridden matriarch, her adult son and daughter, and a gang of nude children. Also giving curvature to this filmic sculpture is a panoply of recurring animals – including an elusive unicorn that Lily frequently gives chase to – and the hidden murmurs of some mysterious war taking place in the background.

The most obvious point of reference is Lewis Carroll’s Alice dyad: Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Black Moon mirrors the scenario of the girl thrown into an eccentric world that seems to occupy its own rules of logic, where the absurd beats down any protest from the leagues of rationality. From its quasi-anthropomorphised animals who speak telepathically and batter out etudes on the piano, to the matriarch’s out-of-sync dialogue (backwards vocalisations?), the film is an ode to the handbook of nonsensicality. Svankmajer’s wonderfully perverse Alice (to come over a decade afterwards) can also be aligned with this film: its emphasis on stark, random sounds, zany animality and a house as allegorical prison providing a nice parallel – albeit with more claymation.

It’s not for no reason that I use the word nubile in the context of Lily, for she adheres to the sensual undertones that have come to mark the Alice character in recent times. Alice, with its cutaways to the sultry lips of the narrator, did not shy away from sexualising proceedings. Black Moon too embraces a more lascivious side that was not (allow one could argue the contrary) originally present in Carroll’s head. Her milky skin and flowing blonde locks, the way the camera is magnetically lured to her open shirt and smooth legs, all underscore the beauty of the film’s focal point. Yet there’s always something sinister and discomforting about the character (an archetype by now, for sure); is it not the curious amalgam of the fact that she is powerlessly plunged into this foreign environment, but nonetheless is able to exhibit a willingness to accept her impotence and continue on, the factor that constitutes her appeal? This ostensible appearance of innocence – tainted by amorous watercolours – that can forgo the usual neurotic necessity to fully understand all the happenings. Her degenerate surroundings standing as counterpoint to her unsullied self, framing her as an object of spectator desire.

The classy surrealism of Bunuel can also be glimpsed through Malle’s crazy world. While 1990’s Milou en mai offers a more subtle tribute to Bunuel, the paradigmatic Bunuelian reversal is found in Black Moon: finding herself in need of sustenance, the aforementioned wacky matriarch beckons her daughter, who proceeds to appease the yearning by breast-feeding her mother.

Unsurprisingly, Black Moon was a considerable failure upon its release. “Not enough Miles Davis!” bawled the mob still stuck on the elevator to the gallows. “Too many shots of Morrissey and Warhol’s favourite son Joe Dallesandro pretending to do farm-labour!” wailed cineastes from here to Vienna.

But how can one not love the playful madness displayed on screen? Lily skipping around, allowing the viewer to project their own sense of bewilderment into her? It is no less than a joy to witness the possibilities of a unicorn politic coming to fruition, or to see the late Sven (buddy of Bergman) Nykvist’s marvellous cinematography, or those glorious French landscapes oft-seen in films such as Godard’s Weekend and Les Carabiniers.

With Black Moon, Malle delivers a superb impression of dreamlike reality, experimenting with every symbolic trope that might have the good fortune to dawn in the fibre of his mind, while marrying the preposterousness of Alice in Wonderland with the finest helping of New Wave angst. This is indeed Louis Malle’s weird weekend.


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