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