Louis Malle, Part 2: Black Moon

(Last Updated On: December 16, 2015)

The first thing that strikes most people when they first watch Black Moon (1975) is that it is hard to follow. Any film or novel that makes extensive use of “stream of consciousness” narrative will not be comprehended by most people at first. So why do such things exist? My contention is that this is dream imagery—imagery from the subconscious—that an artist is compelled to express in an effort to understand it himself. Personal motivations aside, these creations do nevertheless have value to others because dreams make extensive use of archetypal symbols which we can all appreciate with proper education.

It is a little bit of a stretch to include this film on Pigtails in Paint. The lead character, Lily (Cathryn Harrison), is on the cusp of womanhood which is on the high side of our age range. However, the presence of naked children is a recurring motif and part of our agenda is to remove the stigma of such imagery in our culture. And Louis Malle makes extensive use of Lewis Carroll’s Alice imagery, so that makes this film appropriate in a number of tangential ways.

The opening shot is of a badger rooting around until Lily speeds by in a small car. She stops to look at it with a blank expression on her face. It is not clear at this point, but this establishes the idea that as a young woman, she is intimately connected to nature and is compelled to pay attention to it. As she continues her journey, she comes upon some military troops and watches as they execute some prisoners. There is the suggestion that this is a manifestation of a war of the sexes with the aggressors playing out the male role and the more passive women (and their male allies) playing the victims. The presence of the battle in the periphery throughout the film creates a convincing substrate of anxiety. I also feel it is a reflection of Malle’s experience as a boy in Vichy France—Au Revoir Les Enfants and Lacombe, Lucien are two excellent portrayals of the German occupation. One of the soldiers approaches her car and whisks off her cap; thus exposed, she drives off in panic.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (1)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (1)

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (2)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (2)

On her way, she observes more vignettes of nature communicating with her and another military scene of a prisoner being beaten. In her flight she falls, giving herself a bloody nose—symbolic of the onset of menstruation. Her first sign of civilization is a horsewoman—whom she mistakes for a man—who seems to scrutinize her before cantering off. Then she encounters a group of naked boys acting as swineherds.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (3)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (3)

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (4)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (4)

She finally comes upon a house and enters. There are many signs that the place is inhabited: a lit fire, food cooking on the stove, etc.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (5)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (5)

By this time, the surreal tone is already suggestive of Lewis Carroll’s tales, but we begin to see specific examples: a glass of milk indicative of the “Drink Me! Eat Me!” scene. Lily even has to strain to reach the glass as though she were too small. Across the table is a piglet (The Duchess’ Baby) grunting seemingly in protest and the sound of the piano in the other room is actually a cat walking on the keys (The Cheshire Cat). The milk, however, is a clear symbol of motherhood.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (6)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (6)

Another important recurring character is a rather shabby unicorn. Clearly a symbol of the girl’s maidenhood, Lily’s interaction with this creature illustrates her progress in coming to terms with her adult sexuality and accepting the passing of her youth. Unicorns are post-medieval* symbols of lust, but as strictly fantastic creatures, we understand that we are witnessing the machinations of this girl’s subconscious.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (7)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (7)

Hearing noises upstairs, she explores the house further and finds an old woman (Thérèse Giehse, in a kind of Red Queen role) speaking to a rat (The Dormouse) in a strange mixture of Germanic and Latin sounding languages. Next to her is a radio symbolizing Lily’s connection to the outside, real world. In her first encounter with the woman, Lily has an altercation with her and believes she has died.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (8)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (8)

She hears singing outside and sees a young man tending the grounds. She goes outside to look for him and comes upon him suddenly.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (9)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (9)

Dissatisfied with the old woman’s communication, Lily tries to get a straight answer from this man (Joe Dallesandro). She finds that he only communicates telepathically and is also named Lily. She turns and sees the horsewoman and the naked children now joined by some girls all shepherding a hog and some sheep. The horsewoman is the man’s sister (Alexandra Stewart) and is named Lily as well. The coincidence of the names points to the fact that Brother Lily and Sister Lily are the girl’s alter egos, representing the Animus and the Shadow in Jungian psychology. The twin motif is also suggestive of Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (10)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (10)

Throughout the film, the twins serve as models of Lily’s impending role: Sister Lily as caregiver and Brother Lily as seducer. Both represent the more impulsive aspects of their gender roles while the old woman represents the more rational. Brother and Sister Lily return to the old woman’s room and revive her; Sister then allows the old woman to suckle at her breast. After witnessing this, Lily sits provocatively in a chair (in a Balthus-like pose) while Brother comes by and sensuously caresses her bare leg. Alarmed by this development, she withdraws suddenly and is then locked in the room alone with the old woman. One at a time, each alarm clock (The White Rabbit’s Pocket Watch) goes off and in a rage of denial, Lily throws them each out the window. The clocks are a call back to reality but also symbolic of a woman’s “biological clock”. She is then humiliated by the old woman as her panties fall down inexplicably, yet another expression of sexual denial.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (11)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (11)

She escapes when she sees the unicorn again and tracks it down. The unicorn is the only character that speaks plainly to her and she wishes she could continue speaking with it indefinitely. After this, she experiences a shift in her relationship to the children: at first personally associating with them as a fellow child and then acknowledging her role as caregiver. She again observes Sister Lily modeling the caregiving role by feeding the children. She decides to accept her role and now when the old woman makes suckling sounds, Lily feeds her from her own breast. This strange scene is reminiscent of the final passage in The Grapes of Wrath with Rose of Sharon suckling the old man.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (12)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (12)

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (13)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (13)

This rite of passage is commemorated in the film by a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde with Lily playing the piano accompaniment and two of the children playing the leads. The choice of subject matter is instructive; the Tristan and Isolde story came into full blossom in the troubadour era and is about a young couple who fall in love but don’t realize it. The drama is escalated when the couple drink a love potion they mistake for wine.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (14)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (14)

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (15)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (15)

Lily then witnesses a violent scene as Brother Lily kills an eagle with a sword and then Brother and Sister begin fighting tooth and nail, perhaps representing the unresolved tension between the sexes in our society. Lily returns upstairs—the old woman is now gone—and assumes her role: sleeping in her bed and trying to work the radio. A snake appears, an obvious phallic symbol, and slithers into the bed. It appears that Louis Malle does not regard womanhood as a liberation, but an obligation to be meekly accepted. Lily’s expression is of passive resignation and not consistent with the notions of sexual freedom of that period.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (16)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (16)

In the final scene, Lily gets closure with the unicorn which suddenly appears. This time it says nothing and Lily dutifully bares her breasts as it makes suckling sounds. In fact, this is the freeze frame at the end of the film. The significance of this is that in satiating the unicorn, she is able to let go of her attachment to her childhood innocence and fantasy.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (17)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (17)

I would like to thank Pip for his contribution in analyzing this film. Without his help, it would have been a lot more work for me to put this all together.

The last installment of the Louis Malle films will be Pretty Baby starring Brooke Shields.

*I erred in my original assumption that this was a medieval symbol.  After some of Christian’s comments and some more follow up on my part, I realize the symbol belongs to the late 15th Century (but possibly earlier).  Please read the comments below for a clarification.  In an effort to get so much information out, there are bound to be errors like this and I will correct them as needed.  It is not my intent to deceive or misrepresent historical paradigms.  -Ron

7 thoughts on “Louis Malle, Part 2: Black Moon

  1. I would like to add my notes for the film’s symbolism in full. Some of it Ron agreed with and used, but some of it diverges from Ron’s interpretation or simply wasn’t touched on in his article. So, for the record:

    So, I just watched ‘Black Moon’ again, and here are my impressions:

    * The unicorn is the central symbol of the film. The unicorn, as I have suggested, is historically tied to virginity and maidenhood. It is also a fanciful beast, something not real. At the start of the film, Lily (as her name suggests) is an innocent, a teenager who is just now seeing the sexes for what they are rather than her romanticized childhood notions. Why does Lily pursue the unicorn? Lily is chasing after her own innocence, a state-of-mind where she can avoid having to pick a side in the war of the sexes, to deal with reality as it is rather than as she wants it to be. She chases it all the way into her own head. Ironically, it is the only being in Lily’s dreamworld that verbally communicates with her in a meaningful way, once she actually catches up with it. This is important because it demonstrates that she had good reason to pursue it–after all, it sort of helps her make sense of this new world she’s in, or at least to accept it. The unicorn is the avatar of Lily’s innocence. At first her own mind is even more confusing to her than the real world, but the unicorn keys her in, basically letting her know that she should not fight the surreal nature of this world because that is what innocence is: basically being free of the rules of civilized society, which includes logic.

    * There are several signs that Lily has lost touch with reality. Of course, there is the general fact that the film is full of surreal elements, but more than that, these elements have meaning in themselves. Another sign we’re in Lily’s head is that when Lily first meets the old lady, she says things about Lily (over the ham radio) that she couldn’t possibly know, since Lily hasn’t told her anything about herself at that point. The twins are also named Lily, which suggests they are extensions/manifestations of herself.

    * There are things in the film that allude to the Alice books (which Malle has mentioned as an inspiration): there is the topsy-turvy relationship with the old woman feeding from the younger women’s breasts; there is a set of twins; there are talking animals, including a rat (a big mouse) and a unicorn; in the house, Lily first encounters a table with milk, which she drinks, reminiscent of the scene in AiW where Alice drinks from the bottle labeled Drink Me; the old lady is fascinated with mirrors; and so on.

    * The real world keeps trying to intrude, but Lily is determined not to let it in. There is the soldier that wanders up and dies, which the Lily siblings ignore until Lily points out the body. There’s also the alarm clocks (symbols of waking up from sleep/dreaming) that keep going off, which Lily keeps tossing out the window. And the radio, indicating communication from the outside.

    * The war between the sexes is the real world, which here is literalized as a war between men and women. Or is it? Maybe I mistook this, but if you look closely at the scene in the beginning where the men line up the women and shoot them, there seems to be one man in the bunch of women. Is he a traitor to males? Or is it that Lily isn’t quite seeing things properly? Maybe the “real world” isn’t all that real either. Maybe Lily has been in her head the whole time.

    * The naked children also tie back into Lily’s own innocence. The nude child is a symbol of innocence and vulnerability and are also part of Lily. Why do they attack her? Well, is it really an attack, or is it their attempt to pull Lily fully into their existence? They surround her, the giggling swarm, perhaps trying to rip her clothes off (to help her shed the last vestiges of society/reality). She resists, misinterpreting their intentions.

    * Eventually Lily starts to understand this world and to get in sync with it. At last she finds the kernel of her innocence, which becomes art (her, the children and the twins gathered in a room, performing Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde). The Lily twins–representing the two sexes to Lily–are here in balance. Lily has found her peace at last, but it doesn’t last long. The painting of the man killing the eagle turns out to be prophetic. When it actually happens, it becomes a symbol of the divisiveness between the sexes as a whole. As the Lily twins fight, they invite the war onto the property, and Lily herself realizes she can’t keep reality at bay forever. This crushes her emotionally. When the snake (a Freudian male symbol) crawls up her dress later, she barely reacts, seemingly in a state of depression. She has essentially lost her virginity here, meaning her innocence, because she has come to accept the world as it is.

    * When the unicorn comes into the old woman’s room at the end, Lily prepares to breastfeed it, just as she had earlier done for the old woman. I’m not sure about this one. Milk is a symbol throughout the film. Twice Lily drinks milk from a tall glass, and twice the old woman is breastfed. What will happen when the unicorn drinks the milk? It’s a mystery, an inversion of what we now know, and maybe Malle meant it that way.

  2. You say: “Unicorns are medieval symbols of lust.” No, quite the contrary, I just quote Wikipedia: “In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin.” See also there the Renaissance painting about “The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn.”
    Traditional images of the unicorn show an elegant white horse, while this one looks more like an obese plough horse.

    • In the area of courtly love, lust did not mean what it does today with its heavily machoistic connotation. It had a much more feminine (and collaborative) sense relating to the eyes serving as “scouts for the heart” and the kind of seizure that happens when eyes first meet. It was considered a holy infusion, a kind of gift from God, very different from today’s conventional materialist view of sex and gender relations. Two of the most important heraldic symbols were the unicorn (lust) and the lion (ferocity). I direct you to the series Civilisation hosted by Kenneth Clark and to Joseph Campbell’s discussion about the development of courtly love. Lust and love were discussed in terms of mutuality rather than the one-sided aspect we think of today.
      Wikipedia is an excellent resource, but should be viewed with skepticism. Because of its strict need for documentation, they can only offer a conventional mainstream coverage of a topic (with some variation because of designated editors). That necessarily excludes first-hand accounts that are not verified by others or views with which a particular editor strongly dissents.

      • Oddly enough, I have a nonfiction book on the history of the unicorn and its symbolism. I should try to dig it out and see what it says about the unicorn as lust symbol. It makes sense that the unicorn would be a symbol of sexuality, given the phallic nature of its horn. That it might be simultaneously a symbol of purity and of lust is not really surprising. We are talking about a fictional animal after all, a paradox by its very nature. But I do think its symbolic connection with purity/virginity is dominant paradigm by far, and thus the one most likely to be used. Yet, we see it here in the context of surrealism, a style associated with dreams, visions and the subconscious. In this case, because Lily is a jumble of confusion and adolescent feelings, it is probably correct to assume that the unicorn is a symbol of both Lily’s innocence (virginity) and her burgeoning sexuality. These things are not necessarily contradictory. See Moebius’s ‘The Apple Pie’.

      • Ron, you seem to get a lot of intellectual leads from Joseph Campbell, but I don’t trust him. Reading The Power of Myth was a great disappointment, he seems to be giving a lot of ethnographic gossip and gratuitous psychological interpretation, without any scholarly reference.
        I read a few things about the birth of courtly love in the South of France in the 11th century, I saw nothing about unicorns. They seem rather to appear with the Northern imitators of the 13th century. The Catholic Northern trouvères are to the earlier anti-Church Southern troubadours what counter-reformation is to reform.
        Also I grant no value to Freudian or Jungian interpretation, it is a purely arbitrary intellectual play, without any link with empirical evidence.

        • I admit Campbell lacks somewhat in his dry style of writing. He is a much more animated speaker. That makes sense since he was a long-time professor and lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College. I know his citations do not have the kind of rigor we expect today, but that is because he was breaking new ground. At the time, it was unacceptable to study comparative mythology and religion and he was thus marginalized, something I think Pigtails readers can relate to. He did not have all the answers (nor did Jung, Einstein or Darwin), but it was a worthy foundation for meaningful scholarship. The lack of citation lies in the fact that he read many things (often in their native language) in his youth and probably did not consider keeping strict track of them for the future (I have the same problem). He assimilated the information and made a coherent map in his mind which was the basis for his lectures, making it accessible to less well-read people. It should be recognized that there was also not a whole lot of appropriate empirical evidence to be had and standards of rigor do change over time. Anthropological standards–the basis of some of his conclusions–have also changed. Like all human beings, he had his flaws; in fact, he was one of those taken in by the “Gentle Tasaday” fraud and even published about them in one of his atlases. I have tried to find scholars who have followed the same line of thought, but they seem to be apocryphal or overly theological–David Ray Griffin, for example.

          I wholeheartedly admit I am not an expert on unicorns, but have seen references to them here and there. I have done a little more homework and realize that Kenneth Clark may have been misleading. The tapestry he referred to, The Lady and the Unicorn, was rediscovered by Prosper Mérimée and George Sand and is dated at the end of the 15th Century. Since he was discussing the development of courtly love, I assumed the piece was of that period (the middle 12th to middle 13th Century). In the intervening two centuries new symbols may have been added expounding on this paradigm. And unicorns may not have appeared in those early stories, but the equally fanciful dragon did on occasion. When I revise this post, I will have to adjust the time period. I do, however, prefer the word lust to love in this context because of love’s entangling meanings may confuse the primal nature of the symbol.

        • I grant value to Freudian or Jungian symbols when they are understood as such by those who use them, and I am reasonably certain that Malle did. These were the dominant psychological paradigms in Europe for much of the 20th century, and even when they started to fall out of use, those artists who grew up with these paradigms might process them in their own way, even if they don’t necessarily subscribe to the theories behind them. To a lesser extent, I think the same can probably be said of Campbell, who has been very influential on art here in the US.

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