Black Venus (Vénus noire)
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
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 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.