The Reverence & Irreverence for Unicorns in Black Moon (1975) & Legend (1985)

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When we were discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, it was all too easy to pick on the film’s depiction of a plump & frumpy unicorn, since that’s not the image we typically associate the mythical beast with. The movie itself even picks on the unicorn, with its protagonist Lily (one of three Lilys) stating plainly to the poor beast, “You’re not very graceful. In my books unicorns are slim & white.” The Eeyore-esque unicorn then laughs in her face & brays “The most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.” Black Moon playfully subverts the iconic image of a unicorn with what is essentially a horned donkey with a smartass sense of humor. The most realistic depiction of what Lily & ourselves were picturing when we mentally conjured a basic unicorn wouldn’t gallop onto the screen until a decade later in Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend.

As a European art film featuring cross-species breastfeeding & a literal battle of the sexes, Black Moon isn’t at all interested in basic cinematic concerns like clear narrative or commercial appeal. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1980s when American movie studios would start mining the same fantasy realm representation for wide commercial releases, but you can see echoes of the Natural World magic & down-the-rabbit-hole story structure of Black Moon in popular fantasy titles like The Neverending Story, The Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke. Although Legend was an outright commercial flop it was a big studio picture that firmly fit in that category. Legend is more of an adventure epic than Black Moon in a lot of ways, structuring its tale around dual journeys to restore order to a broken world instead staying put & feeling out the weirdo magic vibes of one particular location. Both films do pursue a dead still sense of pacing, though, concerning their narratives more with an overwhelming immersion in Nature than any kind of action-packed pursuit. Legend‘s scope & budget allows for the inclusion of goblins, demons, fairies, zombies, and swamp witches that you aren’t going to see anywhere near Black Moon‘s small scale domestic horrors, but both films do depict a mortal woman in over her head in a magic realm and they do share  a common talisman: the unicorn.

In Black Moon, the unicorn doesn’t do much but trot lazily & crack wise. It’s just one element among many that confounds our hero Lily in her quest for simple answers about where she is & why that world is so hostile. In Legend, on the other hand, unicorns are everything. They’re exactly what Lily was conjuring when she insulted their Black Moon equivalent: slim, white, majestic, and (just like everything else in Legend) slathered in glitter. Lily chases down the Black Moon unicorn out of sheer curiosity and the consequence of the transgression is a line of dismissive insults no worse than anything else she suffers in her newfound home. In Legend, princess & Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend Lili (Mia Sara), lures a unicorn in for an intimate moment, but her indulgence’s consequences are much more severe. When the princess calms the mythical beast into standing still a goblin severs its horn, instigating a fantasy genre version of the Ice Age. There are only two living unicorns in Legend‘s folklore and their existence & health affects the state of the world no less than almighty gods. According to Tom Cruise’s woodland nymph character (who’s a decent stand-in for Black Moon‘s mute Fabio houseboy Lily), the unicorns “speak the language of laughter” & “Dark thoughts are unknown to them.” Furthermore, the princess “risks [her] mortal soul” when she says that she doesn’t care that the creatures are sacred. Like in Black Moon, the unicorns can talk, but they communicate in beautiful whale songs. Everything about them boasts divinity. And when “a mortal laid hands on a Unicorn” the whole world goes to shit.

Recent try-hard films like Deadpool & Suicide Squad and their like-minded internet memes have made the image of the unicorn a sort of cheap visual gag supposedly humorous for its Lisa Frank brand of femininity, a likely result of its brony-based cultural resurgence. Black Moon, similarly (but more purposefully), pokes fun at the divinity & femininity of classic unicorn representations by subverting the mythical creature’s attributes in an image & demeanor that pokes fun at the importance of physical beauty. That subversion wouldn’t mean anything without a unicorn hegemony to buck against, though, and you’ll find its best contrast in the divinity of Legend‘s horned equestrians. Ridley Scott’s mid-80s fantasy epic is maybe a little lacking in pace & plotting, but it’s a jaw-dropping work of gorgeous production design if I’ve ever seen one (I could happily spend 1,000 mall goth lifetimes in Tim Curry’s demon lair if nothing else) and that attention to glitter-coated beauty is a perfect stage for a traditional white unicorn ideal, the exact antithesis of what’s presented for laughs in Black Moon.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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5 thoughts on “The Reverence & Irreverence for Unicorns in Black Moon (1975) & Legend (1985)

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