In New York in 1978, French painter and filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert was returning to his Greenwich Village apartment when he two muggers attacked him. A struggle ensued, during which one of the attackers threw paint thinner in de Montalembert's eyes. The artist's sight grew dim and continued to deteriorate throughout the night. By the following morning, he was completely, irreversibly blind.
The British documentary, Black Sun, burrows deeply into de Montalembert's personal odyssey but, far from finding a bleak experience, unearths a story of inspiration, insight and humanity. A singular meditation on literal and figurative sight, the 2005 film is a quiet but astounding tribute to resilience.
Black Sun is an intimate portrait of de Montalembert, yet we never see him onscreen. Instead, first-time documentarian Gary Tarn has the artist tell his story dispassionately, in voiceover narration that is accompanied by an often hypnotic stream of disparate, sometimes psychedelic images. The visuals are all over the proverbial map -- refracted lights, shots of traffic, pedestrians walking along city streets, scrambled television signals, stock footage, etc. -- and, while it can be a bit numbing, the approach is surprisingly effective. The fleeting sights fairly represent the jumble of images, both remembered and imagined, that fill the mind's eye of de Montalembert.
Our narrator is a man of uncommon strength and resilience. "Instead of getting angry, you just have to find a way out and smile," he says. Enduring a horror that would send many into despair, de Montalembert enters a New York rehab program early on and pushes himself to learn self-reliance. Within a year, he is walking the streets of Manhattan alone at 3 a.m. and traveling by himself to such far-flung destinations as Bali and India.
Black Sun receives its heft from de Montalembert's sundry thoughts and observations. Some of his epiphanies are fascinating, some poignant. De Montalembert had to learn to navigate his existence in wholly novel terms. His disability lost him friends and a girlfriend, he acknowledges, but it also proved "liberating" in a host of other ways. Just as de Montalembert's blindness essentially necessitated a new life, it spurred a new way of understanding the way. "Vision is a creation, not a perception," he concludes.
Similarly, de Montalembert examines the figurative blindness of so many people with literal sight. "They are not interested in what they see," he notes. "They use it to not bump into something." In a particularly haunting anecdote involving a Cambodian refugee driving a New York cab, de Montalembert points out that some wounds are easier to see than others.
Presented in widescreen 1.78:1 and enhanced for 16x9 displays, the picture quality of Black Sun is strong, filled with vibrant colors and sharp lines. There are plenty of grainy and washed-out images, too, but such defects are by design and add to the film's visual depth.
The 2.0 track is serviceable, although portions of de Montalembert's voiceover narrative sound oddly hollow. Considering the importance that sound took in the narrator's life, it is a little disappointing that the DVD does not boast a more complex audio mix. There are no subtitles.
The sole bonuses are previews for other IndiePix titles, including Disarm, Orthodox Stance, Toots, The End of America, Road to the Big Leagues, The Axe in the Attic and City Unplugged.
Black Sun is a bold, audacious and often mesmerizing take on documentary filmmaking. If not consistently successful, it is thoroughly compelling -- and a tale that is well worth knowing. Documentary maker Gary Tarn deserves praise for having the chutzpah to tell Hugues de Montalembert's story with such inventiveness. It proves to be a good match for the movie's equally intriguing subject.