Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 41: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where My Dinner with Andre (1981) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in My Dinner with Andre.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The idea is astonishing in its audacity: a film of two friends talking, just simply talking—but with passion, wit, scandal, whimsy, vision, hope, and despair—for 110 minutes. It sounds at first like one of those underground films of the 1960s, in which great length and minimal content somehow interacted in the dope-addled brains of the audience to provide the impression of deep if somehow elusive profundity. My Dinner with Andre is not like that. It doesn’t use all of those words as a stunt. They are alive on the screen, breathing, pulsing, reminding us of endless, impassioned conversations we’ve had with those few friends worth talking with for hours and hours. Underneath all the other fascinating things in this film beats the tide of friendship, of two people with a genuine interest in one another.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What My Dinner With Andre exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told. Both Shawn and Gregory are born storytellers, and as they talk we see their faces, but we picture much more: Andre being buried alive, and a monk lifting himself by his fingertips, and fauns cavorting in a forest. And Wally trudging around to agents with his plays, and happily having dinner with Debbie, and, yes, enjoying Heston’s autobiography. We see all of these things so vividly that My Dinner With Andre never, ever, becomes a static series of two shots and closeups, but seems only precariously anchored to that restaurant, and in imminent danger of hurtling itself to the top of Everest (where, Wally stubbornly argues, it is simply not necessary to go to find the truth).” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I didn’t have regular access to cable television as a kid, but whenever I did manage to find myself alone with a remote control and more than several broadcast-network channels to choose from, I’d often park the dial on IFC. The Independent Film Channel was never as satisfying as an afternoon spent emptily staring at MTV or Comedy Central reruns, but I did enjoy watching it anyway. It gave me the self-satisfaction of an intellectual. Half-watching entry-level indies like Living in Oblivion, Trees Lounge, Kicking & Screaming, and short film programs on IFC made me feel much smarter than the teenage idiot I so obviously was, even though I wasn’t engaging with their individual selections as vigorously as I should have been. My Dinner with Andre might be the quintessential IFC half-watch movie of those lazy juvenile self-indulgences. I remember seeing the movie on television so many times in my younger days, but I can’t recall every actively watching it, absorbing its nuances. A movie mostly consisting of a real-time conversation between NYC playwrights at a hoity toity restraint, My Dinner with Andre was perfect background fodder for pretending I was a budding intellectual, a lie I never came close to living up to.

Of course, I have much greater patience & attention span in my thirties than I did two decades ago, so I had a much easier time engaging with the dialogue-heavy explorations of philosophy & art that play out over this film’s titular meal in my recent revisit. NYC playwrights Wallace Shawn (who I would have known only as The Nice Man form Clueless the last time I saw this picture) & Andre Gregory (an avant-garde theatrical producer who staged Shawn’s first play) share a philosophical back & forth over their meal about Nature vs. Comfort in the modern world, jumping form topic to disparate topic as the natural rhythms of their conversation dictate. At first, Shawn allows Gregory to ramble on unimpeded about his spiritualist journeys beyond the facade of societal & artistic norms, only asking questions to deflect interest in & attention to his own views. As Gregory’s long, troubling answers are increasingly upsetting to his sensibilities, Shawn finally becomes incensed enough to speak up, challenging Gregory’s complaints about how modern society is living in a foggy, zombie-like trance by rightfully countering that Gregory’s spiritualist solutions to that false crisis are impractical to everyday people with normal means. Before that conversational shift, My Dinner with Andre feels exactly like the stuffy, intellectualist nonsense I had casually grouped it in with without giving it too much thought. Once Shawn starts speaking up, however, it becomes a much more vital, useful debate about life, art, and the merits of the modern world

Director Louis Malle (who we’ve covered here before in discussions of Black Moon & Pretty Baby) does his best to make this stage play material feel cinematic, recalling similar Friedkin adaptations like The Birthday Party & The Boys in the Band. Although the conversation is staged in the public space of a restaurant, it’s constrained to the intimate setting of a corner booth. The audience feels like we’re listening in from a table over, invading the players’ privacy. Malle also clues the audience in on Shawn‘s more practical, populist mindset over this dining partner’s by paying attention to the physical language he shares with the waitstaff, whereas Gregory acts as if they’re the only two souls in the room. There’s only so much a director can do with the dialogue-focused material, however, so the most auteurial style Malle allows himself is in depictions of Shawn’s travel to & from the titular meal, riding the subway cars & taxi cabs of late-night NYC. In these moments you can really feel the film’s microbudget, experimental theater means, which only feel a step above its No Wave cinema contemporaries because of the academic nature of the dialogue. There’s even something oddly punk about watching Wallace Shawn travel by subway in cold weather, apparently fighting off a nasal drip & looking mildly displeased by life itself. That’s never something I expected to think about The Nice Man form Clueless.

I could claim that the dense philosophical discussion of art, Nature, and comfort is what endeared me to My Dinner with Andre, but even in this recent, adult rewatch that would be a self-serving lie. I mostly appreciated My Dinner with Andre for the opportunity to spend two hours looking at and listening to Wallace Shawn. In too many roles, Shawn appears only briefly as the bills-paying comic relief, so it was wonderful to hear him speak his own written dialogue for extensive stretches of time while gazing at his Muppetish visage. Before he even speaks up against Gregory’s noxious pontificating he’s already the clear hero to his dinner guest’s villain, making lovably incredulous faces at each absurd, prolonged statement about What’s Wrong with The Modern World. Maybe my fixation on Shawn’s facial expressions and my total opposition to Gregory’s POV are both directly tied to my unintellectual approach to cinema (and life at large). Two decades may have passed since the last time I watched this independent film standard, but affording it a matured, attentive viewing only made me feel like more of an intellectual imposter upon revisit. Thankfully Wallace Shawn was there for me this time to call bullshit on any & all potential pomposity. He really is the best

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

-Brandon Ledet

Louis Malle’s Unsettling Takes on Pubescent Femininity in Black Moon (1975) & Pretty Baby (1978)

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One of the most discomforting aspects of August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s art house fantasy piece Black Moon, is its depiction of a young woman on the verge of adulthood. The film has a way of patronizing & infantilizing its seemingly teenage protagonist, a dynamic Malle likely picked up from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland along with that source material’s down-the-rabbit-hole story structure. It’s not uncommon for Malle to face controversy for the sex politics in his films, something that even cropped up here when Alli questioned the intent behind Black Moon’s literal war of the sexes & Boomer expressed discomfort with the film’s panty-dropping gag in our original Swampchat discussion. Though, if Black Moon‘s depiction of a young girl’s journey into womanhood is uncomfortable, then Malle’s follow-up film Pretty Baby was an unapologetic act of aggression. If the director’s coldly detached, yet oddly lighthearted depiction of a young woman being indoctrinated into fantasy realm domesticity & interspecies breastfeeding is discomforting, then his application of that exact same tone to a preteen girl’s life as a sex worker in a turn of the century New Orleans brothel is an outright horror show. At the very least it was a bold choice for the French filmmaker’s American debut. At its worse it was a deliberate, pedal to the floor provocation.

That’s not to say that Pretty Baby is an empty or spiritually corrupt slice of filmmaking. In fact, if you remove the “underage” aspect from its protagonist sex worker’s character traits, what you’d get really wouldn’t be that far off from the film’s cutesy Oscar bait equivalent Rambling Rose. Pretty Baby faced accusations of being child pornography & was banned in a couple areas of North America, mostly for its nude depictions of a far too young Brooke Shields, but it’s a much tamer work than what those criticisms would suggest. Set during the final days of New Orleans’s storied Storyville district, where prostitution was once legal, Pretty Baby is for the most part a tame costume drama staged at a very specific time in this city’s history. Although its more sensationalist content is what immediately comes to mind when you conjure the film, it’s for the most part a laidback, melancholy hangout in the heat & humidity of New Orleans courtyards that commands most of the film’s general vibe. Just like how Black Moon is more interested in carving out a very particular fantasy realm space to dwell in than following the more action-packed aspects of its wartime plot, Pretty Baby is a quiet, languid, depressive work with an oddly detached, carefree worldview despite the stakes of its central conflict. You could argue that it’s that exact judgement-free take on the material that makes the film so uncomfortable in the first place, but it’s still difficult to claim that the its main goal was to shock & disgust. It more obviously just wants to hang around in its own earth tone drunkenness & historical accuracy.

Not yet a teenager, Brooke Shields stars as young sex worker in a very busy brothel. Her mother, played by (the always beautiful & forever talented) Susan Sarandon, is a cruelly dismissive employee of the same madame & pushes to have her daughter’s virginity auctioned off as quickly as possible so that the young girl can become self-sufficient. After a particularly painful experience with a john & her mother taking off with a new husband/former client, the young girl runs away from “home” and into the arms of a fine art photographer named Bellocq. Apparently modeled after a real-life photographer who documented Storyville sex workers, Bellocq forms a strange domesticity with his new, unexpected ward & marries her, despite her horrifically young age. Although they’re husband & wife, Bellocq & his child bride have a clear father-daughter dynamic that would be oddly sweet if it weren’t for all the icky lovemaking (something that would easily be defined as rape by today’s standards). Malle maintains an emotional distance in the way he covers the material here, the same detached vibe he brought to Black Moon’s fantasy realm dreamscape. It can be more than a little alarming considering the inflammatory nature of the material he’s working with, (unlike Black Moon, Pretty Baby could in no way be mistaken for a fairy tale), but it also feels true to the long dead era he’s trying to provoke, unlike the softened melodrama of works like Rambling Rose.

Even outside their judgement-free, yet male gaze tinted takes on pubescent femininity & shared, dreamlike sense of languid pacing, Black Moon & Pretty Baby actually occupy a surprising amount of common thematic territory. They’re both stories about young women (one very young) trying to navigate worlds where they don’t belong. They both feature naked children running wild & free (although in a far less sexualized context in one case) and a strange fascination with breastfeeding (sometimes with a human baby, sometimes with a talking unicorn). Pretty Baby’s voodoo priestess recalls Black Moon’s mode of immersion in Natural Magic & Black Moon’s varying examples of what the womanhood its protagonist is entering looks like are echoed in Pretty Baby’s performances from the always-welcome B-movie goddess Barbara Steele & and an elderly madame with a braying, John Waters cadence to her line delivery. Although the settings of these films are wildly different, it’s easy to see the specific touch Louis Malle brings to both pictures & how they work as a thematic pairing. The question of how that thematic throughline handles the hefty topic of pubescent femininity in either work is up for debate, however. And since Malle stubbornly remains detached in both pictures, that debate largely falls on the shoulders of his audience.

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, this comparison of its lame duck unicorn with the divine unicorns of Legend (1985), and last week’s look at how its surrealist take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland compares to the 1988 stop-motion animation classic Alice.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Moon (1975) was the Most Honest Surrealist Take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice . . . Until Alice (1988)

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We were having a hard time in our initial conversation about August’s Movie of the Month, the fantasy realm art piece Black Moon, in pinpointing an exact interpretation of the film’s basic plot or intent. It’s highly likely, of course, that director Louis Malle didn’t want his exact intent or a definitive plot to be discernible at all in the film. Black Moon feels very much committed to a certain mode of surrealism that points to the coldness & seemingly random cruelty of existence by being, you guessed it, cold & randomly cruel. The interpretation we more or less settled on as a crew was that Black Moon was best understood as a down-the-rabbit-hole story that aped the structure of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland series as a means of capturing his young protagonist’s unsettling journey into womanhood. Whatever that journey means or what it even is largely falls under the umbrella of personal interpretation but the Wonderland influence was undeniable as an overarching aesthetic in its basic structure. Black Moon is by no means a strict adaptation of that source material, but it does wear the influence on it sleeve, as openly admitted by Malle himself in interviews. I’d also argue that the film was the best surrealist take on Wonderland’s cold, random cruelty depicted on film for well over a decade, capturing that aspect of Carroll’s work better than any of its many peers that were straightforward adaptations of the novel. That is, until it was upstaged by 1988’s stop-motion animation classic Alice.

Czech director Jan Švankmajer had been producing short films all the way back to the same art scene in his home country that produced 1967’s Daisies before making his feature film debut in Alice. To be honest, Alice’s structure & pacing reflect his short film past in a lot of ways, recalling modern filmmakers like Guy Maddin & Roy Andersson who are remarkably adept at constructing individual images & vignettes, but struggle a little when it comes to piecing those moments together to achieve a digestible feature length work. Alice is a stunning visual achievement, a tactile work of stop-motion animation that values the specificity of curio cabinet oddities, Joseph Cornell shadowboxes, and taxidermy animals over the clay figurines we’re used to seeing in titles like Coraline & Kubo. What makes Alice interesting as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s source material, however, is not in the visual achievement, but in a tone that matches the cold surrealism of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. As Švankmajer put it himself, he wanted to reinvent the interpretation of Alice in Wonderland in other adaptations that posed it as a fairy tale with a moral center and instead present it as a cold, amoral dream with no point to be made outside its own absurdism, a reading that captures the essence of Black Moon just as much as it hints at the power & intent of Carroll’s source material. Švankmajer explained, “While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted finger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realization of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realized dream.” Considered in that context, Black Moon also functions best as a dream & not as a fairy tale, despite what you’d expect based on its talking unicorn.

The difference between the dream structures of Alice & Black Moon, however, is that the latter often functions as a nightmare. Both films’ plots survive on the surreality of minute to minute obstinate confusion, but there’s a lighter tone to Alice that isn’t quite matched in Black Moon. Black Moon can be funny at times, but it often veers into uncomfortable imagery like hawk murder & interspecies breastfeeding, while Alice finds its individual vignettes in moments like a cute rat cooking a can of beans on its young protagonist’s head. Most of the film’s creepiness lies in its old world imagery, a curio cabinet specificity that recalls a similar immersion in Nature, strange animals, and odd domesticity to what we see in Black Moon’s languid sleepwalk through an earth tone dreamscape, but with noticeably less malice. Black Moon pulled a lot of its surrealist influence from Carroll’s creation in Alice in Wonderland, an uncaring, dreamlike tone that recalls the structure of a fairy tale, but without the lesson to be learned. 1988’s Alice picks up that torch & runs with it, applying that same amoral interpretation of Carroll’s intent to a straightforward adaptation of his novel. Together they have a lot to say about the potency of dream logic, the philosophical implications of surrealism, and the meaninglessness of meaning. I highly recommend them as a double feature next time you’re feeling particularly existential & loopy.

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 & last week’s comparison of its lame duck unicorn with the divine unicorns of Legend (1985).

-Brandon Ledet

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

Movie of the Month: Black Moon (1975)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer  watch Black Moon (1975).

Alli: It’s hard to describe the plot of Black Moon, but I’ll try my best to sum it up simply. A young girl, Cathryn Harrison, is fleeing certain death in a war. It’s seemingly everywhere as she tries to get away. She eventually winds up at a magically untouched farm house. There she seeks refuge. Life at the farm house is surrealist chaos. Things that exist in this movie: an operatic yet mute man, nude children with farm animals, a unicorn, and a mumbling rat. It’s more an Alice in Wonderland type story than an actual escaping the war movie.

In the credits, I noticed Sven Nykvist listed as cinematographer. He was Bergman’s cinematographer for many, many films, but the two most relevant to this one are Persona and Hour of the Wolf. Those two titles, to me, function in the same sort of dream-like time frame and space. There’s a scene in particular that’s an extremely beautiful shot where the cast is in a living room type space and there’s this family production of an opera. There’s these two children standing and singing and to just freeze that frame I think is a lovely picture.

Something I forgot about was the strange politics of this movie. It’s set against the backdrop of this war, but it’s set up to be a battle of the sexes. By showing this as a brutal and seemingly senseless battle, it seems to be a very clueless attempt to say, “Why can’t we just get along?” By not giving context it kind of trivializes a lot of what was going on in mid-early 1970’s, given that this was during the height of second wave feminism and Roe v. Wade was only two years before. I think the reason I forgot about the politics in this film is that they get brushed aside very early on by its strange tone and pacing.

This movie is extremely surreal. It has the rare quality of having the most dream-like logic of any movie I’ve ever seen. I frequently have sort of stressful dreams where I’m running in and out of buildings and rooms struggling to find something. The something is always vague. Watching this movie kind of put me into a familiar, trance-like state, which I’m not entirely sure if that’s a positive or negative attribute. In a way I think is dreamlike surrealism finds its own kind of horror whether intentionally or not.

I find that surrealism is an either you’re in or out sort of thing, especially in film. What do you think about its dreamlike feel, Brandon? Were you onboard? Why or why not?

Brandon: Black Moon does reach for a languid Spirit of the Beehive style of horror in ambiguity & the unknown that I genuinely appreciated, but will admit that the film’s deliberately alienating mode of obfuscation took me a minute to sink into. Early on in the runtime I found myself searching for direct metaphor in the film’s War vs. Nature imagery & a clear, linear sense of plot in what was happening minute to minute, but I don’t think the move lends itself to that kind of literal examination. That’s not to say that there is no prevailing structure or that the movie is generally meaningless, but I do think trying to “figure it out” is a little besides the point, which is a kind of submission on the audience’s part that can be difficult for a film to earn.

I think Black Moon shows its hand in this way when its initially stoic, Mad Maxian brat protagonist demands “Would you please tell me what’s going on around here?” and her panties immediately hit the floor, signifying nothing but an oddly tawdry, whimsical joke. Then there’s my personal favorite moment when she opens a picture album in search for answers only to find pictures of the same confounding characters & objects that frustrated her in the first place. It’s gags like these that signaled to me that it’s okay to relax and enjoy the film’s odd visual pleasures & loopy dream logic without having to solve some kind of complex metaphorical puzzle. The movie knows exactly how silly & absurd it’s being.

As Alli noted, the best way to wrap your mind around Black Moon‘s structure is to consider it as an Alice down-the-rabbit-hole story (an influence explicitly acknowledged by the director, Louis Malle). Our de facto hero Lily (one of three Lilies, a super popular name apparently) leaves a masculine-governed war-torn world in the midst of a female rebellion to mysteriously find herself transported to a decidedly matriarchal, magical realm of Nature. These two realities, War & Nature, seem to paradoxically occupy the same space, alternating in dominance but rarely interacting as Hero Lily tries to make sense of where exactly she fits in. She begins the film as a defiant non-participant in the War realm and ends the film wholly indoctrinated in the Natural one, with all of its naked children, strange critters, and nonverbal communication. It reminded me of fairy tales where you’re not allowed to leave a magical realm once you’ve tasted the food, except in this case you’re stuck once you breastfeed a mythical beast or a human adult.

It’s in that War vs. Nature dichotomy where I have to slightly disagree with Alli’s suggestion that the film’s central war-of-the-sexes political message is “Why can’t we all just get along?” Although both realms depicted in Black Moon are horrifying in their own bizarre way, there’s a peace & freedom to the feminine, Natural world that simply doesn’t exist in the male-dominated War world. It’s a tranquility you can see in the slow-moving beauty of the film’s odd little bugs or in the wild, screaming abandon of its hoard of naked children. It’s only when Man Lily disrupts this serenity by dismembering an hawk with his giant, phallic sword that the semblance of order & freedom is disrupted and the Nature realm starts to resemble the War one. Like I said, though, the film is so aggressively nonsensical that it’s risky to read anything this concrete in its story or allegory, as tempting as it is.

Britnee, what, if anything, do you think Black Moon has to say about the war of the sexes? Was the film’s social or political metaphor at all strengthened by its deliberately confusing story & imagery or only muddled by them?

Britnee: When initially viewing Black Moon, I felt completely lost. I’m usually slow at catching on to art house films such as this one. As the film came to an abrupt end, I planned on heading home and Googling the hell out of Black Moon because I felt as thought there was some deep movie message that I completed missed. A strange feeling sat with me for a long time after watching the movie. It was a mixture of fear, confusion, familiarity, discomfort, and bliss. What a combination, right? I loved the way that Black Moon made me feel, and I loved how I was given the freedom to figure out the film for myself. So, thankfully, I decided to not do one bit of Googling for Black Moon.

The film begins with a very violent and terrifying war of the sexes. With such an intense opening, I thought the film was going to be a surrealistic war movie, and Lily was going to join the women in their fight. Well, that didn’t happen at all. Once Lily ventured off to the magical farmhouse, the war of the sexes makes very few appearances for the rest of the film. I didn’t think the film had much to say about the war of the sexes except for that it simply existed. I also didn’t recognize any social or political messages within the film, so, in answering Brandon’s question, it’s quite possible that the film’s confusion prevented these messages from coming across (if they exist at all). I viewed Black Moon as a bizarre film about a young girl stepping into womanhood. Lily’s breastfeeding of the old woman, the sexual tension between her and male Lily, and just the way that she goes from having a tantrum about something silly to taking control of the situation led me to believe that this film could be a coming-of-age tale. Oh, I almost forgot about the snakes! I thought it was strange how there were multiple snakes that made appearances in this movie, but the snake represents transformation (shedding its skin) and Lily is transforming from a girl to a woman. The film sort of makes a bit of sense when I view it as story of a young girl transforming into a woman, but maybe I just shouldn’t be making sense of this movie.

Boomer, did you think the film was attempting to make a statement about entering womanhood? What parts of the film were you able to easily clarify and what parts, if any, were you simply not able to make any sense of?

Boomer: Like you, Britnee, the first thing that I did after watching the film was looking for interpretations of it online. I was primed to assume that the movie would be about burgeoning female sexual maturity as soon as I learned it was a film with the word “moon” in the title and was about a young woman. Overall, that reading bears itself out, although it seems like a shallow and decidedly male (maybe even chauvinistic) lens into that world. I’ll admit that point is arguable, but I have to say I would feel less annoyed by a film that has a girl’s underpants falling down when she tries to understand the strange world around her if there had been a woman in the director’s chair.

This is the primary rhetorical methodology used to dissect the film as well. Ginette Vincendeau writes in her essay “Black Moon: Louis in Wonderland” (released with the Criterion DVD of the film) that the “dominant interpretation, unsurprisingly, has been psychoanalytical. [Black Moon] is a tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening, explicitly modeled on Alice in Wonderland…. [Georgiana] Colville offers the best sustained analysis in this vein, pointing out, for example, Lily’s positioning as an onlooker, frequently seen on a threshold or at a window, observing the adults’ and animals’ behavior.” It’s certainly an interesting idea, but I’d go so far as to posit that the pervasive surreality may render any attempts to parse the film a bit of an academic exercise.

Before going in to the film, Brandon told me that he perceived a distinct Suspiria vibe in the proceedings, and I can see the similarities between the two in the dreamlike nature of the narrative (for lack of a better term), although Suspiria benefitted from a structure and a more colorful palette (although the dream elements in Suspiria don’t have the same metaphorical quality that Black Moon‘s losses). Given the parallels and the very brief period of time between each film’s respective premiere, how do you feel these two films compare to each other?

Alli: There’s actually a lot of things in common with Suspiria that I didn’t think about until you guys brought it up. They both employ a sort of Wonderland style story arc. There’s the idea of girlhood and girlhood terror through the lens of a male director. Then, you’ve got the idea of witches as old terrifying hags, sort of Queens of Hearts. You could even make a strong argument for the woman in the bedroom being a similar kind of witch as Mater Suspirium, both bedridden and cared for by their followers. Both Lilia and Suzy navigate their worlds with a similar brazen, Alice-like curiosity. Though Suspiria relies on the terror of being young and small in a world controlled by ageless beings, while Black Moon sticks to the well-trodden fear of growing up.

I think Black Moon presents coming into womanhood and growing as giving up some natural freedom. The only truly free people you see the entire movie are the nude children running around. Sister Lily is stuck disdainfully caring for everyone, even this new arrival. Every other adult woman is stuck fighting the men. Even old age is presented as horrific since the old lady is bedridden and sickly and mean. There’s the unsettling ticking clocks as the passage of time with alarms going off as a prominent thing in this film, as if a reminder that Lily is just getting older and older. Her chasing after a mythical creature, one that only appears to virgins and maidens, is a kind of way of chasing after youth and imagination.

I guess the thing that always stands out to me when I watch this movie is the talking animals. Usually they’re only seen in children’s movies, so it’s kind of refreshing to have a character like Humphrey appear in a wacky, surreal arthouse movie. As apposed to being lighthearted, It sure seems that creatures like Humphrey and the Unicorn have sort of a disdain for humankind. Nature in general seems pretty eager to let people kill themselves off so that it can get along with things. It feels a little bit like it’s all looming, especially at the end with the sheep everywhere. I know you said, Brandon, that there’s sort of a peace and freedom in nature, but to me it seems a little bit like it’s biding its time. What do you think about this idea of ambivalence? Is it menacing or comforting?

Brandon: I meant to use the terms “peace” & “freedom” in more of a political sense than anything. There is plenty of discord & danger to be had in Black Moon‘s take on Nature, but I get the general sense that its societal structure is far more functional than the War realm’s. The children & animals (both mythical & otherwise) run freely in an overwhelming, menacing sort of way in Lily’s new home, but it’s difficult to imagine them existing at all in the War realm. According to the film’s central philosophy, “All is illusion. Set us free of this world,” a sentiment that points to an ambivalence & frivolity on both sides of the coin, the same kind of everything-is-pointless mentality you see in anti-war art movements like surrealism & Dadaism. Even as both worlds pose their own sort of existential threat, though, as any kind of mortal life would, I still found the Natural one more hospitable.This isn’t quite the ultra-feminine Nature utopia of The Duke of Burgundy, especially with the masculine romance novel cover model Lily chopping birds out of the sky, but there’s still food on the stove & (goofily ugly) unicorns milling about, dispensing life advice. It’s, to me, a preferable existence in a world that’s bound to be dangerous & ambivalent either way Lily chooses to go.

Britnee, you said earlier that Black Moon is at heart a bizarre tale of a young girl stepping into womanhood. Besides the girls running amok among the wild children, there seem to be three distinct snapshots of what womanhood looks like presented here: the panty-dropping frivolity of youth in Hero Lily, the confidently self-assured adulthood of Sister Lily, and the bedridden, infantile bitterness of (as the credits bill her) Old Lady. What do these portraits combine to say about the womanhood Lily is presumably stepping into? How does it differ from what little we see of the film’s masculine archetypes?

Britnee: I didn’t initially see the three main female characters as representing stages of womanhood, but I completely agree with your theory, Brandon. My mind is completely blown right now. These “snapshots” combined really make womanhood seem like it’s going to, for lack of a better term, suck. Hero Lily (insert the incredible Trey Songz hit “Panty Dropper”) is so confused about who she is and what she’s doing that I get stressed out just thinking about her. Sister Lily seems to have her shit together and really holds down the fort, but as Alli previously mentioned, she’s stuck in this caretaker role (serving dinner to the naked kids, maintaining the cottage, breastfeeding the Old Lady, etc.). The cruel Old Lady is completely envious of Hero Lily’s youth, and spends most of her time talking to a rat and radio. Nothing about her life is remotely appealing.

Brother Lily serves as one of the only representations of masculinity in the film. He really seemed to be ignorant and immature when compared to Sister Lily, who seems to be the same age. He doesn’t really do much but garden and sing, and the only time he really stands out is when he becomes violent by killing a hawk and having a deadly fight with Sister Lily. When comparing him to the symbolic female characters of the film, he just looks really dumb. I’m starting to feel like Sister Lily is the strongest character in the film. That could say something positive about a woman entering adulthood, but still, she doesn’t seem to have much freedom.

Boomer, were there any parts of the film that made you uncomfortable? The breastfeeding of the old woman, spanking of the young girl, and the nude kids are a few things that made me shudder a bit. Even the parts with the talking animals were a bit unnerving because their voices were so whispery.  Of course, this could be because of my own ignorance.

Boomer: That’s not ignorance at all; I’m fairly certain that the parts which made you uncomfortable did so intentionally. For me, one of the things that stood out the most was the recurring motif of breastfeeding, not because of the feeding itself but because of the way that it subverted the paradigm of top-down caretaking that was referenced above. There’s a definite Maiden/Mother/Crone element at play that runs parallel to and inhabits the stages of womanhood, and the upending and general scattering of what personification/stage performs what actions and when is, I think, deliberately evocative of the general topsy-turviness of this world. That distance from the (presumably natural but really socially inscribed) norm lends even the more quotidian actions a general sense of uneasiness.

The thing that disturbed me most overall was the general destructiveness of our heroine, especially the sequence in which she stomps around the yard and takes delight in snuffing out the screaming cries that emanate from under her feet. There’s such a sociopathic quality to it that I couldn’t stop thinking about it after the movie ended. It’s a pretty mundane sequence (as much as anything in this film could be considered mundane) in comparison to the other surreal oddities on display, but it’s really stuck with me.

EPSON MFP image

Lagniappe

Britnee: I really feel like a terrible person for being so judgmental of the film’s unicorn. When seeing the unicorn for the first time, I was so pissed off that it was a donkey with a horn. Unicorns are supposed to look sort of like Fabio as a horse and have silky hair and shiny horns, but being a short, stubby donkey with an ugly horn shouldn’t make the Black Moon unicorn any less of a unicorn.

Boomer: The death of the hawk made me think of Paget Brewster felling an eagle in the cold open of the “Pageant” episode of Another Period, which made me laugh inappropriately. “Ha! Majestic no more!”

Alli: I’m going to take this as a Humphrey appreciation moment. I love his constant mumbling and that he slams doors every time he leaves the room. Also, I think that he’s extremely relatable. If I were that old woman’s pet rat, I’m pretty sure I’d be perpetually peeved.

Brandon: I think my text message wires got crossed while I was gushing to Boomer about too many movies at once, something I do embarrassingly often. I was actually comparing Suspiria to to Refn’s latest provocation, The Neon Demon, and Black Moon to Ladyhawke, which I assure you are much lesser stylistic leaps. I do think the Suspiria similarities Alli drew on were interesting & valid, though, and funnily enough I had cited another Argento title in my notes for Black Moon: Phenomena, a work that similarly sets a journey into womanhood against a horrific world of supernatural Nature.

My favorite aspect of Black Moon is the way it presents magic & witchcraft as a Natural, feminine realm crawling with plants, bugs, animals, and mythical creatures. There might be a bone-headed, typically masculine lens to that style of storytelling that estranges womanhood to an otherworldly mystique, in essence stripping an entire gender of its humanity, but damn if we haven’t gotten some great movies out of that buffoonery: Phenomena, The Witch, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Juniper Tree, The Spirit of the Beehive, etc., etc., etc. The gimmick may not lead to great gender discussion, but it certainly has lead to some great cinema.

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
September: Brandon presents The Box (2009)
October: Britnee presents Funhouse (1981)
November: Boomer presents  Paperhouse (1988)

-The Swampflix Crew