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.
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