Thursday, September 16, 2010

Venice Film Festival 2010: A Review of "Black Venus"

Black Venus (Vénus noire)
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs, Olivier Gourmet, Elina Löwensohn, Jonathan Pienaar
Grade: B

While some will attest that the armless Venus De Milo is a work of art, actual physical faults are treated with considerably less vigour – even when they’re a result of nature itself. The Venus in Abdellatif Kechiche’s biographical drama never comes close to attaining the stature of a God, but nevertheless provides the basis for a fascinating meditation on how one can be judged by the sum of their apparent parts.

The Venus in question is one Saartije ‘Sarah’ Bartman (Torres), who has been brought to England by Hendrick Caezar, a entrepreneur who believes he can find a niche within London’s entertainment industry in the early 1800’s. He markets the woman, whose sagging breasts and abnormally huge buttocks (as well as her African descent) turn heads, as the “Hottentot Venus”, creating a show around her alien features and exploiting his public’s general fear of the unknown. This vision extends to incorporate Saartije as a star, but does so by compromising the grace of the woman for an approach that emphasises her as a dangerous freak of nature.

Kechiche’s depiction of nineteenth-century London successfully brings the squalor of the city to the fore, gaudily presenting the low-brow tastes of working class, pre-Victorian England, and all of its sensationalist hypocrisy. In the very first scene there we sense that this is an ugly place to reside, the folk attracted to businessman Caezar’s star attraction tangibly beying to be entertained, and gladly feasting on the novelty of an unusually-shaped African woman. Saartije is playing along with the theatrical aspect of the turn, engaging in tribal-style dancing, and behaving like an aggressive animal whenever a member of the audience dares to approach her.

Even if the unsightly deformities and circus escapades suggest that “Black Venus” be some feminised form of The Elephant Man, Saartije is at least aware of the meretricious aspects of the production, and appears to neither want nor need rescuing. The film addresses the implications of Caezar’s use of Saartije (whether she is his slave or his colleague) early on, profiling this case in a lengthy, over-staged courtroom scene that lathers tabloid-style brushstrokes onto the argument. It’s rather surprising that Saartije’s issue is held so firmly within the public sphere at all, an observation noted by the British bravura of a court official; “It is a credit to this country that it protects the interests of even a Negro woman.” As well as demonstrating a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the indefinitely flawed logic behind moral hierarchy, Kechiche asserts that individual accountability is a peripheral concern within his film, and as he formally deals with the motives behind Caezar’s governance of Saartije “Black Venus” becomes much more of an indictment of society’s failures than anything Caezar does personally.

The film’s primary theme of exploitation unravels slowly, Saartije’s iconisation as the “Venus” shrewdly de-humanising her as a commodity to indulge in. This is a completely different world from John Hurt’s refined surroundings, as Saartije has to contend with Parisian sex parties rather than formal dinners, but their journeys follow the common trope of the outsider’s need for acceptance. Black Venus stresses how one can become so dependent upon habitual pleasures, and bound by the constraints of a circle of friends, that we can so easily conform to a lifestyle that we haven’t chosen for ourselves. Social indoctrination can occur on a multitude of levels, and in this story Kechiche finds a way to demonstrate how a person’s unique qualities and attributes can be modulated to accommodate a certain gaze.

The richness of "Black Venus" and its assured sense of the period extends (and “extend” really is the key word here) to several lengthy scenes in which Saartije is on display, gyrating her hips and bearing her teeth. As a debilitation of her dignity and condition the surfeit of spectacles serve a purpose, but Saartije’s fetishisation leads to a disconnection between her and the audience. Kechiche seems short on ideas to demonstrate the effect that British life has had on her, opting instead to distract with displays of degrading 19th century pornography. “Black Venus” and its prolonging of the inevitable is a torturous emotional device, which pads out the film to a dauntingly overlong 160 minutes and produces a dawning sense of the anti-climactic.

In the Venus role Yahima Torres – who, to my knowledge, doesn’t even have an IMDB page – gives a display that is so introspectively devastating that it defies belief. Often an escalating vessel for the film’s thematic presentation, rather than an active proponent within the narrative study, her moves to suggest Saartije’s ideological shifts (both past and present) add valuable substance to the character. As she gives a personal account to a packed courtroom she states, “I am an Actress,” with such an inflected sense of motioned duty, realising just as she utters the words that they are ridiculous. Torres reveals Saartije’s sense of performance, ensconced in a culture that shuns any real esteem, her bemusement with science reflecting that, on some level, she has accepted what she has become.

Although the film opens with a scientific lecture about the Black Venus and the cultural derivation of her various bodily intricacies, it then veers to a much looser, freer tone, almost mythologising the concrete knowledge already offered. This is not a well-known pocket of history, and so its sudden shift into a detached world reads as a way of spurning encyclopaedic technicalities and proclaiming that there was more about this woman than her female form. The sad truth about Saartije is that few people in the film realise this, her objectification in the five or six years of her life that “Black Venus” covers maintaining that the woman was never treated as anything other than an ephemeral study: her legacy defines her.

The film’s value lies in its ability to interconnect human sciences with medical science, genuinely accessible as an historical biopic of sorts, but never exclusively tied to a timeline. In avoiding becoming too self-righteous towards his subject Kechiche achieves a lot with his ambitiously-scoped examination of cultural ignorance, and integrates conventional biopic stamps into his outlandish topic. Even if a chunk of “Black Venus” could acceptably be consigned to the cutting room floor, it’s difficult to condemn its unrelenting vision, and the level of interest in its unique appeal makes for a thoroughly worthwhile experience.


Alex Ramon said...

Excellent review. Looking forward to seeing this.

Jordan Ruimy said...

I'll make sure to take a look @ this one basd on your review. It could easily get mistaken for Black Swan. Bad timing I guess.

Dempsey Sanders said...

great post, heard a lot of hype about this so far, its definately a must see on my got-to-watch list.

SEO Book said...

This is great! Was looking forward to this actually :)

Anonymous said...

It's hard to believe any part of history from one perspective.