(written as a review and podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
Gary Tarn’s Black Sun is one of those films that, arriving unburdened with expectation, displayed its craft, honesty, modesty and beauty in such a way that it not only made the day a little better, but it has stayed with me and continues to glow its welcome light in my mind. It’s a film about a painter coming to terms with blindness and it is one of those rare films that you immediately want to tell others about and share with them.
The film tells the story of Hugues de Montalembert, a French painter who was living in New York in the 1970s. One night, out of nowhere, as he returned home, two burglars were waiting for him. In the confrontation that followed, one of the men threw paint stripper into his eyes. He tried to wash it out with water, but because of its nature it continued to burn into the eyes and could not be removed. By the following morning, his vision had gone completely.
Without a shred of self-pity, and in a very matter-of-fact way, which in no way lessens what is a profoundly inspirational story, he relates how he came to terms with his lack of vision. He tells of his early days of blindness, days in which he felt as if he had fallen ‘into a pot of dark honey’. He realised that things would change but that he would need patience. ‘Let’s do like an animaux’ he reasoned (and Montalembert’s lovely French-accented narration is not the least of the film’s pleasures), ‘sleep, wait, and don’t think, and don’t despair, it will change. Thanks God it has changed.’
In those early days when he was lying in his hospital bed, he would think about the blind. Where were they? In the run of normal daily affairs, or socially, how many blind people did he know, or even encounter? For him, as for the great majority of us I expect, the answer was none. He wondered where they all could be, and imagined them in a pit where society puts people that cause it inconvenience. Refusing the ‘protection’ offered to him by his friends and family as the surest route into that same pit, and fighting a primordial fear about going out into the world without sight, he forced himself to behave ‘naturally, and not blindly’ and to trust – himself, his instincts and other people. He had to learn everything again he said, but mainly ‘to walk alone’.
From then on, once he had conquered the worst fear of all, of initially going outside of his door, he continued to travel unaided through the world and found protection in life itself, or as he put it, he found a way ‘to dance with life’. When later he was robbed in Delhi airport, he found that everything was returned to him by beggars. On travelling for two months alone in the Himalayas, he said, ‘nothing wrong happened to me, absolutely nothing. On the contrary.’
In an extreme way that he never would have chosen he says that blindness led him to discover a profound truth about sight. As he says, ‘vision is a creation, not a perception ... people mainly use their eyes to avoid obstacles, not to look at the world or to understand something. Most people are not really interested in looking at all.’
Before his blindness, Montalembert’s life, as a painter and fimmaker, was based on seeing, on using his eyes (he had ‘the eyes of an assassin’ said a friend). Appropriately, composer and filmmaker Gary Tarn has created a film of intensified visual and aural beauty that approximates to what it is like to see through Montalembert's eyes. Images that show the shapes and the play of light, shadows, street scenes, reflections and faces comment, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, on Montalembert’s narration about the experience of ‘living in an abstract world’, composed mainly of sounds. The colour-manipulated scenes of life on a tropical island, where Montalembert wrote his autobiography, sometimes losing pages of writing because he did not know that his pen had run out of ink, are hallucinatory and recall Chris Marker’s travelogue Sans Soleil in their potency. The ending, simply that of a ferry leaving the shore, and turning to face the water, silvered with evening sunlight, is lovely indeed.
Some people may know the story already from Eclipse, the book that Hugues de Montalembert wrote in 1982 about his experience and trying to come to terms with the blindness. If that is so, then the film– made two decades later – may comes a quite a surprise. It comes from a different place and is very different in tone. Where the book is filled with details, the film has been purified to essentials; whereas in the book Montalembert’s relationship to himself, his new self and the world around him is still in the process of being formed and resolved (it was written in the years immediately following the attack and there is an obvious anger and frustration in his outlook), in the film his voice emanates a wisdom born of acceptance, resignation and the realisation that although there had been a rupture in his physical condition, his destiny had actually remained unchanged.
Tarn composed the film from a few hours of tapes that he had recorded of Montalembert talking about the events of his life. The sound of his voice in the film is soothing, rhythmical, the music fitting to its cadences. Edited down to 70 minutes, Tarn removed anything which didn’t advance the story or took it into areas of needless detail. The fact is that the story expands to one of universal meaning.
If you want an affirmative, uplifting and courageous tale that is neither sanctimonious nor saccharine, and leaves you considering your own attitude to life, and how little you really make use of all the senses you have, then this is it. Calling a film inspirational or heartening is normally to lay the dead grey hand of platitude upon it. Not so here – it would be impossible in a film so full of golden light. I watched it with the occasional tear rolling down my cheek, product of a number of emotions, but mainly born of a conviction, normally so dimly apprehended and so little acted upon, that life repays a hundrefold what you give to it.
Montalembert talks at one point of the sheer pleasure he gets from walking with a painter friend who describes the scenes in the street before them in wonderfully enlivening ways. Calling the world into being, into vision, in a way that makes it a gift to ourselves and others, is something we all can do every moment. And think how easily we can do that, having our own eyes with which to see.