Director: Ana Lilly Amirpour (USA). Year of Release: 2021
The Home For Mentally Insane Adolescents, just outside New Orleans. An Asian-looking girl/young woman of indeterminate age is dressed in a white straitjacket and little else. It’s time for her weekly nail cut, The cutter is an unsympathetic woman who moans about why she has to pay for her own manicures while she does this for free. She is both physically and mentally abusive to the woman, who we later learn is called Mona Lisa Lee.
Suddenly, Mona Lisa approaches her abuser with a fixed stare. She raises her arm and watches the nail cutter raising her own arm in response. As Mona Lisa brings her arm rapidly downwards, her adversary stabs herself several times in the thigh. Mona Lisa takes the keys and breaks out. The guy on the desk is watching a Latin American soap, but when Mona Lisa stares at him and jerks her head forward, he bashes his head against the television.
Mona Lisa heads towards the Big City, and is at first helped by metal fans hanging around on the roadside, because, hey, outsiders have to help other outsiders, right? This starts a trend that we’ll see throughout the film. When Mona Lisa meets people who treat her with friendship and dignity, she’ll show similar emotions back. Anyone who starts to mess her around will soon end up punching themselves in the face.
The “good guys”, who escape Mona Lisa’s wrath, are not necessarily those who are valued by society’s movers and shakers. First, there’s Fuzz, a drug dealer and aspirant DJ, who invites her into his car, complete with sound system and mirror ball. You feel that, until they are interrupted by a cop, Fuzz is going to try to have his way with Mona Lisa, but he buys her Cheez Puffos and seems genuinely concerned for her welfare. There are worse people in the world.
Similarly, when Mona meets Bonnie Belle, a pole dancer, and self-declared “bad mother”, Bonnie is in the middle of a street fight with a woman who accuses her of looking at her man. Bonnie is the sort of woman who is usually treated in films as trailer trash – a working class sex worker from the Southern states who is expected to be an ignorant racist. Now Bonnie is not a particularly progressive figure, which we’ll come to, but she still carries a certain dignity.
Bonnie’s treatment of Mona is two-sided. On the one hand, she seems genuinely concerned for the young woman who has been cast out onto the streets, and there is a sense of unity between two women who have been shat on by society. On the other, Bonnie sees an opportunity to make money, harnessing Mona’s telekinetic powers to force men to throw money at her during her stage act, and to make people (almost always men) at cashpoints take out and hand over money.
What we are witnessing is the justifiable revenge of the poor. Bonnie exploits Mona, but only within certain limits. Bonnie is also later subject to an unwarranted beating by men who believe that they control her body. This is a film which doesn’t make too many moral judgements, apart from instinctively supporting the underprivileged against those who gain their kicks from exploitation.
There’s a couple of questions about Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon that I find it harder to answer: What’s the point of all this?, and Is it Any Good? Well, I enjoyed it, without being able to provide much evidence why, For a start, this wasn’t just the same old story that you see in countless films. Mona is intriguing – not as an “exotic Asian” whose behaviour we can look down on with a mixture of interest and contempt, but as a thinking being who makes her own decisions.
It is a bold move that Mona’s telekinetic powers are never explained. In a very early scene we are presented with her actions, and expected to process them as we best can. We are not told why she can do what she does, or how she came across these powers. We are just expected to accept that this is the way that things are. If the characters were wearing colourful superhero uniforms, I would probably hate this arrogance. As they are People Like Uz, it seems prenature to ask why.
The film also treats the police, if not with contempt, then at least with indifference. There is a cop who Mona relatively early on causes to shoot himself, and limps through the rest of the film (including a hilarious slow motion chase scene with the stílletoed Bonnie). But the driving emotion in the film is that Mona must not be returned to the asylum where she’s spent over a decade of her life. If the cops want to try to return her, then they are fair game.
There is a key scene in which Mona asks the ‘sympathetic’ cop whether he likes people, noting that “people are not so easy to like.” Similarly, this is not a film which is desperate for popular acclaim. It doesn’t have a plot that really makes sense, and its heroes are either underage psychopaths, or those who don’t share the privilege of most Hollywood character. Isn’t that a refreshing change?
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is probably not my film of the year, but it’s far more interesting than any number of assembly line clones. Going to see it won’t change your life, but at least it might make you think about a couple of things. There’s a lot worse to expect from a film.