A lot of avant-garde filmmakers experimented with Lewis Carroll’s classic novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Some features that come to mind are Jaromil Jires’ wonderful film, “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”, Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Jan Svankmajer’s “Alice”. Louis Malle’s surrealist experimental film “Black Moon” could very well fit into this category of the directors’ own interpretation of the novel giving it their own “free form”!
Written by Louis Malle in collaboration with Joyce Bunuel (Luis Bunuel's daughter-in-law!) and directed by Louis Malle, “Black Moon” is devoid of any central plot as such. Set against a post-apocalyptic backdrop of a “war between the sexes”, this film simply chronicles the weird happenings as experienced (or imagined?) by a teenage girl, Lily (Cathryn Harrison) who has narrowly escaped being killed by men seemingly out to wipe out the entire women populace! Having been lucky to have escaped, she just speeds away in her car deep into the woods only to come across an isolated property, a huge manor house and its strange inhabitants. The house is dwelled in by a cantankerous, bed ridden old lady (Therese Giehse) with a weird fetish, who talks to animals, especially a big rat-like creature “Humphrey” in some language that’s gibberish, and every once in a while speaks on a radio kept by her bed. There is a brother-sister pair around the house to take care of stuff. They don’t speak a single word. They only hum some songs as they work around the property. Some snakes tucked away in unlocked drawers also share the space with them!
The most bizarre of all though, is the presence of about half a dozen naked children running around playing with a gigantic pig; they keep interrupting Lily’s path every time she chases a not-so-graceful Unicorn that seems to be a regular visitor around the property…..
Everything sounds very interesting for film lovers who love their films rife with surreal dreamscapes but frankly it doesn’t go much beyond this. The film surely holds our interest for most of its modest running time of about 95 minutes thanks to the splendid camerawork by the genius cinematographer Sven Nykvist and the rather awe-inspiring sound design. In a fabulous close-up of a crawling centipede, you can actually “hear” the little thing crawl on a surface! In another hilarious scene (repeated twice), amidst near dead silence, a pig sitting at a table, apparently guarding a large glass of milk kept at the center of the table, lets out a loud grunt every time Lily gulps milk from it!
These are just some of the really jaw-droppingly outlandish scenes in the film and there are a good number of them. There are some scenarios that are so absurd, they are comical and that’s a good thing, but after a while the same devices are recycled instead of bringing in some novelty factor. Once one gives in to the idea of absurdist fiction, then there are no limits to what one can do! But surrealism not being Malle’s forte, he leaves a little to be desired in his product. If a premise that automatically creates endless possibilities starts to get repetitive then there is a problem somewhere! Malle even tries to infuse some allegorical allusions to the Indian epic Ramayana (a particular episode involving “Jatayu”, the demi-god possessing the form of a vulture, who tries to save Sita from Raavana’s clutches!) but it doesn’t necessarily create a huge impact in the overall proceedings.
This is an English language film and Cathryn Harrison, portraying Lily clearly speaks in English. However Therese Giehse’s (Old Lady) speech sounds dubbed in English and her lip movement is ridiculously out of sync. It is unclear whether this was intentional or a technical glitch, a bad dubbing job or a bad lip-synching job! At times even Harrison’s dialog seems out of sync. Some of it sounds really dumb as well!
If one thinks from a certain angle, there certainly is an interpretation that gives the happenings on screen some meaning and a vaguely fitting explanation which could even reflect religious themes! I would not like to adhere to any theory or interpretation though. I think it is safe to assume that Louis Malle didn’t want to make a deeply thought-provoking or metaphorical film. He merely wanted to compile some dream-like visions into a motion picture laced with themes of civil war and futuristic dystopia and a teenager’s coming-of-age, and that’s fair enough. He wanted his film to be more a visual experience than a cerebral puzzle. Only Luis Bunuel or David Lynch could’ve done a much better job with the material at hand.