Black Sun: Seeing Without Seeing

Mar. 26, 2009
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Hugues de Montalembert was returning home one evening to his Manhattan apartment near Washington Square when he was attacked by robbers. In the fight that followed he was sprayed in the eyes with paint remover and lost his sight. The Frenchman had been a painter and filmmaker until that evening in 1978. “My life was based on seeing,” he says. And, he adds, that he never considered ending it.

Black Sun is an extraordinary documentary filmed by Gary Tarn and narrated matter-of-factly by Montalembert against a soundtrack of somber electronica. Tarn’s visual sequences include scenes from places Montalembert has traveled and imaginative depictions of the narrator’s post-sight visual perspective. As Montalembert explains, he sees color—and something stranger. In the months that followed his blindness he began seeing visions, some of them disturbing. Perhaps his brain was compensating for the stimulus his eyes no longer provided.

From this Montalembert wonders whether there really is no reality, since even sighted people see the world a little differently from one another. He may be putting too fine a point on his insight, yet it’s intriguing to consider his thought that “to paint is to see beyond” and “to see is to see beyond.” Montalembert comes across as a kind of Eastern saint, embracing eternity in the present moment and working to let go of negative impulses and desires. For him slipping into depression over the events that overtook him could be a fatal misstep in a world where life is ultimately all we have.

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