Abdel Kechiche’s Black Venus played last night at the 48th New York Film Festival, and plays again tomorrow night. The film is currently without distribution.
In L’Esquive and The Secret of the Grain, Abdel Kechiche demonstrated a logistical command as authoritative, in its way, as any action filmmaker: scenes of endless, animated talk, teenage gossip in the schoolyard and family arguments around the dinner table, with performances of sustained intensity teased out of inexperienced actors and covered from multiple angles, cutting swiftly between foreground dynamics and background detail for a lifelike sense of constant activity. Scenes felt like they could go on forever—which is possibly why the only way he could find to end his movies was with the intrusion of the social power structures by which his nonwhite characters were, and are, oppressed—harsh truths which, in the wielding, felt far more finite and mechanical than what preceded them.
And so Black Venus, his 2-hour, 39-minute Life of Saartjie Baartman, the specimen of African womanhood displayed, exploited and fetishized as the “Hottentot Venus” of Georgian England and Napoleonic France, is exactly the film one fears going in: a wealth of priceless socio-historical detail, wielded as a bludgeon, this time for the duration.
French academicians, early Darwinians convinced that evolutionary theory proves the superiority of the white race, observe a bronze of Baartman and her jarred vagina (note the protruding labia) in a prologue; flashing back five years, we see Baartman (debutante Yahima Torres) in a cage, preparing to hiss and shimmy for paying, fright-giggling crowds at a London sideshow organized by Caezar (Andre Jacobs), whose children she nursed at home in South Africa. Frequently slouching forward, Torres always seems to be looking up guardedly—she remains a hard read as Baartman runs up against different ideas of compassion and enlightening as a low-class theatrical attraction; as a cause célèbre in a London courtroom, where humanist campaigners can’t believe that she’s a performer and not a mistreated captive; as the star attraction at Parisian salons (“Are you a Christian”) and then orgies (where her flesh is celebrated); as a piece of anatomical data for scientists (they’re miffed when she won’t let them measure her vagina, when they paid her handler and everything); and as a prostitute in and out of brothels. First with Caezar and then with skeezy-worshipful bear-baiter Réaux (Olivier Gourmet in a leather vest), Saartjie, who by the time we meet her has already turned to the bottle, is, in the African tradition, the object upon which Europe projects its fascinations: cultural, political, spiritual, and, especially, sexual. Initially alive in echt-Kechiche scenes depicting the attitudes of audiences and poses of performers during an ethnographic pantomime—and the costume and production design are specific and fascinating throughout—Black Venus eventually becomes a log of sexual use and abuse, culminating in Saartjie’s death from syphilis as twentysomething streetwalker.
As a symbol of colonialism, Saartjie is near perfect—but in demonstrating her objectification, Kechiche makes an object of her, a receptacle of humiliation. Everything Kechiche shows is undoubtedly true, or at least credible: can we really doubt how miserable it was to be black, poor, an immigrant, in Europe in the early 19th century? Can we really doubt the callousness of the powerful or the hypocrisy of the conscientious? There’s a lack of perspective here—it’ll bit a hit with the arthouse guilt junkies, but just as many will have little reaction beyond a slow, numbing nodding: yep, yep, yep, sigh, yep. In my notes is written, “Where do you go from a gang rape?” It’s another 30 minutes before the movie ends.
And just before it does, her is vagina cut out and put in a jar. (They finally got her cunt!) Kechiche cuts between Saartjie’s autopsy and the artist who makes her cast, noting sympathetically the poignant, human pain in her frozen expression; Kechiche seems to think he’s like this genuinely forward-looking model of compassion, rescuing a real person from history. But when you lay your lead actress naked and immobile on a table and film a doctor shaving her pubic hair with a straight razor, for the sake of scene in which doctors shave the naked, immobile character’s pubic hair with a straight razor… Well, what, finally, is the difference between you and them?