Black Venus (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 165 minutes approx.
I’m wondering if Abdellatif Kechiche is capable of making a film of reasonable length. Looking at his resume, only one runs under two hours and that is only by a few minutes. In between 2007’s 150-minute Couscous and 2013’s 3-hour Blue Is The Warmest Colour is this 165-minute epic from 2010, telling the tragic story of the Hottentot Venus.
At the beginning of the early 19th century Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman (Yahima Torres) was a servant to a white family in the Dutch occupied Southern Africa who came to Europe with her master Hendrick Caesar (Andre Jacobs) hoping for the life of fame and fortune promised to her.
Caesar instead presents Saartjie as a carnival act as a savage African woman called the Hottentot Venus, her unusually large buttocks being a selling point. After being tried but acquitted on slavery charges in London, Caesar moves to Paris, selling Saartjie to bear handler Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), but the exploitation and humiliation Saartjie endures becomes worse.
Black Venus is one of those films that is uncomfortable to watch yet keeps the viewer rooted to their seats for the duration, our avid attention never once on the wane despite the intimidating length. Forgoing any sort of build-up in the form of credits or titles, Kechiche jumps right into it and doesn’t let go until he is ready, some 140 minutes later.
Saartjie Baartman was a real woman – there will be some liberties taken with the dramatic details of the story, the gist of it is a matter of public record. As a South African Khoikhoi woman, her body shape was normal in her native land but to Europeans this was something of a spectacle that people like Caesar and Réaux were happy to exploit, and others were willing to pay to see.
For that reason interest in Saartjie spanned people of all walks of life – from academics to wealthy hedonists and those in between – each with their own agendas. Kechiche opens his film with French anatomist Georges Cuvier (François Marthouret) holding a seminar on Saartjie in 1815. Via a life-sized statue and drawings of Saartjie’s abnormally large labia lips, Cuvier asserts that Khoikhoi women are evolution’s “missing link”.
We then go back to a few years earlier to London where Saartjie is paraded before a baying audience of lower class folk as a fierce savage, initially locked up in a bamboo cage, but eventually let out on a leash. The Hottentot Venus would snarl and lunge at the audience but Caesar would calm her down so she could play a musical instrument then let people touch her voluminous behind.
As expected Saartjie doesn’t enjoy any of this and numbs herself through drink, serving only to anger Caesar when she exhibits signs of unrest or independence during the act. Britain’s passing of an anti-slavery law in 1807 offers Saartjie a potential escape from this degradation yet Saartjie chose to declare herself a willing participant and Caesar was acquitted of a slavery charge.
The film is barely an hour old at this juncture and ordinarily we’d suspect we’ve seen it all we need to already, and in one respect we have since Saartjie’s daily humiliation and exploitation continues over in Paris. But this is only half the story as Réaux, aided by his wretched whore girlfriend Jeanne (Elina Löwensohn) turns the act into something more lascivious than before, plying their trade in upper-class bordellos.
Regardless of whether Saartjie – rechristened Sarah when baptised ahead of moving to France – is being ridden like pony by Réaux, probed by medical examiners and artists or eventually working clients as a prostitute, there is seldom a moment in this story where she is treated or even regarded as a human being. Only one artist is keen to protect Saartjie’s dignity, for everyone else she is a symbol of fascination or a commodity to be exploited.
Intriguingly, the notion of white supremacy doesn’t arise in any overt manner, instead left as something for the audience to infer as prevalent. The racism aspect of Saartjie being portrayed in the most reductive form as a savage when she was anything but is the more prominent concern; the sophistry that is was “of the era” is little consolation as films like Chocolat show this was still in effect 80 years later.
Kechiche I believe hasn’t made this film to score points on a moral front, rather to pay tribute to a tragic victim of ignorance and systematic mental abuse, whose short life – Saartjie died age 26 – should not have been in vain. There is no question the behaviour of her two employers and those around her is nothing short of deplorable and shameful and the anger we feel as an audience towards them is more upset than rage.
Much of this comes from the extraordinary performances of the excellent cast, from the leads right down to the extras. In her only film to date, Yahima Torres is a marvel as Saartjie, conveying so much of her character’s suffering, frustration, and sadness through a simple look or change in her posture. Torres more than holds her own against her established co-stars Olivier Gourmet and Andre Jacobs.
Visually the film is a sumptuous trip back through time, from the palpable grimy, dirt-under-the-fingernails feeling of backstreet London to the bright lights and decadence of Paris, the replication of the atmosphere, attire, and décor is exemplary. Much of the dialogue in the first half is in English which sadly hasn’t been subtitled here (boo!) but the French actors are impeccable in nailing the accents.
Be warned there is a lot of graphic imagery of sex acts and genitalia (quelle surprise) but the real shock is that this is based on real events. There is a coda during the credits that lifts the mood a little otherwise Black Venus is an exquisitely made but truly sobering punch to solar plexus.
Quite simply, Abdellatif Kechiche’s best film to date.
French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
French 2.0 LCPM Stereo
Neil Young on Abdellatif Kechiche
Reversible sleeve featuring theatrical poster art and original artwork
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – **** ½
Man In Black