Painter Hugues de Montalembert’s efforts to overcome being suddenly blinded form the basis of Black Sun, Gary Tarn’s remarkable documentary meditation on perception, released on DVD by Second Run. Gary Couzens reviews the UK Region 0 release.
One evening in 1978, French painter and filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert tackled two intruders in his New York apartment.. One of them threw paint remover into de Montalembert’s face. As the liquid is a base rather than an acid, water did not wash it away, and even as he waited for an ambulance to arrive, de Montalembert could feel his sight failing. Despite the best efforts of the doctors, he was soon completely blind.
De Montalembert tells his story with a remarkable lack of self-pity or any overt plea for sympathy. From the outset, in the account of his assault and blinding, is almost matter of fact, especially when you consider that this incident effectively removed most of his own reason for being. As a painter and filmmaker, his sight was his livelihood. At first, starved of visual stimuli, his brain overcompensated and de Montalembert “saw” a cascade of strange, disturbing, at times erotic imagery. Later, as his rehabilitation continued, de Montalembert was able to travel by himself, at first within New York and later abroad. He also documents his growing reliance on other senses, in particular a love of music that had always taken second place to his visual work.
Although it’s often called a visual medium, for eight decades the cinema has been an auditory one as well. It has been such for longer than that, if you bear in mind that silent films almost always had musical accompaniment, indeed composed scores for the larger productions. The two elements, picture and sound work together in ways that the audience is so accustomed to that the process is all but invisible. Few commercially-released films draw attention to this process more than Gary Tarn’s documentary essay Black Sun.
De Montalembert has an easy, compelling delivery and his autobiographical monologue could quite easily stand by itself. Together with Tarn’s music score, it would make a fine piece for the more specialised radio channel, the same way that Derek Jarman’s Blue was broadcast on Radio 3 simultaneously with its UK television premiere on Channel 4. But Tarn’s imagery adds something else. Tarn doesn’t simply illustrate his subject’s words, in fact most of the time he doesn’t. De Montalembert never appears in person. Instead, Tarn shows is shots of the surroundings: New York City from the air as well as from street level, sometimes sharp, sometimes deliberately soft and blurred, or electronically distorted, to impressionistic effect. The combination of sound (speech and music) and visuals lifts this documentary out of the ordinary, turning it into a meditation on perception and how much we take it for granted.
Second Run’s DVD release is a single-layered disc encoded for all regions. As it comprises a short feature with no on-disc extras – the only other option to “Play” on the main menu is the scene-selection menu – then a single layer is quite sufficient. The feature is presented anamorphically with slight black bars, making this close to an intended ratio of 1.85:1. Visually this is a hard film to judge, partly due to its lo-fi (16mm) origins and partly because occasional blurring of the image appears entirely intentional. As Gary Tarn has personally approved the transfer, I have no reason to doubt that Black Sun looks as close to its director’s intentions as standard-definition DVD will permit.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 2.0. This is certainly in stereo as separation is noticeable in Tarn’s music score, with de Montalembert’s narration sitting in the centre speaker. I didn’t hear anything through the surrounds, however. De Montalembert speaks with a French accent, but his delivery is clear and easy to follow. However, no subtitles are provided, which puts non-native English speakers at a disadvantage and not least the hard of hearing. The latter is particularly regrettable given the disability theme of the feature.
As mentioned above, there are no extras on the disc itself, but Second Run have provided a twelve-page booklet. As well as DVD credits, this is made up of an essay by Gareth Evans, subtitled “Notes on the lessons of Black Sun”. This is made up of short sections, and interspersed with quotes from other writers. I found it unengaging and more than a little pretentious. Although I wouldn’t have minded some input from the director, Black Sun is the kind of film for which a commentary or other “explanation” would be superfluous.
Black Sun is one of those films that takes you by surprise, being quite unlike most others you get to see, an engaging and moving testimony and a meditation on our senses and the role they play in our lives. I do have issues with its presentation on DVD, mainly the lack of subtitles, but otherwise this is a worthwhile entry in Second Run’s continuing project to bring out-of-the-way cinema to the UK audience at an affordable price.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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