Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975) opens with such spellbinding magnetism that I spent much of its first half waiting for the spell to break — which, alas, it does. This interesting, experimental film lures the viewer in with lush, compelling visual storytelling, but the more the actors speak, the more incoherent it gets.
It opens in a war-ravaged countryside, where young Lily (Cathryn Harrison) — disguised as a man — desperately flees what appears to be a civil gender war. Wide-eyed and confused, she witnesses as armies of men clash with female guerilla forces, trying to stay alive and make sense of the conflict. Ultimately, she seeks refuge in a quaint country estate, there to encounter a judgmental, bedridden old woman (Thérèse Giehse) and her two odd, careteking children (Alexandra Stewart and Joe Dallesandro), with whom she proceeds to have numerous increasingly odd exchanges that end up shaping her very personality.
The early passages of Black Moon immediately raise the eyebrows, a gripping sequence of riveting, dialogue-free filmic narrative that plays out like a Monty Python skit filtered through a super-serious French New Wave sensibility. The literalized metaphor at the core of it — an actual war of the sexes — serves as a strong hook, and Harrison is an attractive lens through which to view the desperate scenario. But then she arrives at the country house, and her encounters with the other actors largely abandon that strong central metaphor…or rather, render it more and more opaque. It begins to feel very much like an auteur inventing on the fly, and increasingly obscuring his own messaging. It’s still quite an interesting watch, even beyond its unsettling imagery and frequent shock tactics. At every turn, for example, animals insinuate themselves into scenes — snakes, bugs, rats, voles, and more, many of them creepily voiced by offscreen actors. She’s terrorized by naked children herding sheep and pigs. And throughout, she pursues an elusive unicorn. It all adds up to a weird and disconcerting tableau, but to me it felt like symbolism run amok, and the more random and obscure it gets, the more it loses its grip. Certainly an interesting watch, but in the end, a frustrating one.