Ways of seeingBMJ 2006; 332 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7551.1219 (Published 18 May 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1219
Hugues de Montalembert was attacked and blinded in 1978, aged 36. The French artist and dedicated traveller describes his new life without sight—in film. Black Sun is a vibrant and moving impressionistic documentary that follows the next 20 years of his life, in an amazing journey around the world. And it's a personal and open portrayal of loss and grief, and an insight into what sight means to a blind person. The ultimate impression, though, is of an artist determined to continue his life as before.
De Montalembert narrates Black Sun, but his story includes visual narrative too—scenes inspired by those constructed in his brain as it tries to interpret the impaired input. He reasons that the existence of these manmade “visions” proves that sight is created internally, and is not a perception.
The lens pans soft focus across aerial views from high above New York: a million lights twinkle in the hazy purple dusk. “How many blind people have you met? Where are they?” he calmly asks. The camera zooms in on a crowded avenue, and then the edges of the streets and buildings become outlined in white, as if they're in a giant computer graphics program. White annotations line up neatly with the wire frames.
He relives the attack. Two drug deprived addicts force him at knifepoint into the New York flat that he's borrowed from a friend. Because he has nothing of value—and because he fights back—the intruders become angry. One throws paint stripper at him, and the noxious liquid burns his eyes. His screams scare off the attackers.
Frantically he bathes his eyes in the shower, but already he can feel his sight weakening. We see a kaleidoscope of blur and tunnel vision. At hospital he asks the doctor if it is serious, and the doctor says yes, very. And the next day, de Montalembert is blind. He's not in darkness, though—rather golden light “like falling into a pot of dark honey.” Over the next few days his brain creates vivid, erotic, and disturbing images.
People start to treat de Montalembert differently—now nurses, doctors, and visitors bare their souls to him. He fears other people's reaction to his blindness. “When will you be able to see again?” a taxi driver asks him. De Montalembert learns to play the piano with one hand, the other hand reading the Braille score. He equates losing his sight with losing his masculinity, to castration. He grieves his loss as an artist and as a human being.
Initially he wants his blindness kept secret from his friends, family, and girlfriend. He thinks he wouldn't be able to console them. But they find out, and he has to ask his mother not to visit because he needs more time. His lover leaves him, as do other friends. “People don't like tragedy,” he says. He tortures himself that without eye contact there cannot be love. And he despairs: “You never think it'll happen to you.” But he's not prepared to accept a sedentary life.
He also fears having to give up his independence, to need help. “If I want something I know it will be difficult.” And he associates blindness with a body defeated through age. Despite doctors' protests that he is not ready, encroaching depression spurs him to enrol in a rehabilitation centre. Upbeat footage shows white sticks, sight charts, Braille lessons, and obstacle courses in hospital corridors. He recalls in colour as he describes in delight the rush of excitement at sneaking out of the centre and walking seven blocks down Madison Avenue late one night.
Buildings change into clouds that change into cratered grassy wasteland in a flowing montage. At times the photography evokes nostalgia for summer holidays shot on super eight and at others is garish and synthetic. Computer enhancement transforms shots into technical drawings and thermal images, intense bursts of contrasting colours.
One and a half years later, De Montalembert tells no one and leaves New York for Indonesia. He depicts Bali in dazzling multicoloured thermograms, noisy red and green faces. Here he finds catharsis in writing. Sometimes, unwittingly, he keeps writing after his pen runs out. One time he continued for 12 pages, until his cook noticed.
A man in a bar tells him he looks like a painter. “Yes. How did you know?” de Montalembert asks. “The way you look at things.” Travelling gives him new confidence and helps him to reaffirm his identity as an artist. He shares adventures from his travels with new optimism. Thieves steal all his possessions when he arrives in New Delhi, but they return his bags unopened when they realise that he is blind. In another anecdote, de Montalembert has to be convinced that he's never really seen one of his friends, because they met after the attack. However, de Montalembert claims to know exactly how he looks.
Black Sun is a sensitive account of personal loss set to stunning visuals—a study in frustration and adaptation that occasionally exposes genuine bitterness. Although de Montalembert would like to see again he says he's completely happy being blind. Black Sun is uplifting because rather than let his blindness confine him, de Montalembert uses it to try to understand what it means to be able to see.
Black Sun, a film directed by Gary Tarn Cinema 1, ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH, until 25 May; Silverdocs Documentary Festival, outside Washington, DC, 13-18 June; Nantucket Film Festival, Massachusetts, 14-18 June; UK-wide theatrical distribution and screenings on BBC and HBO television to be confirmed
Items reviewed are rated on a 4 star scale (4=excellent)