by Tony Dayoub
The "Hottentot Venus" was a freak show exhibition in the early 19th century, in which a black South African female, Saartjie Baartman (Yahima Torres), was displayed to European audiences curious about her anatomical differences, primarily her large hips and buttocks, a genetic trait common among her people. Not exhibited to the same spectators was another rumored physical feature, the elongated labia minora which hung down 3 to 4 inches from her vagina. As Black Venus (Vénus noire) begins, we see a plaster-cast figure of Baartman being examined at a scientific lecture, with particular attention being paid by the biologists to this feature, which they dubbed the "Hottentot skirt." This denigrating and sexist nickname is but one of the many indignities Baartman would suffer throughout her life, indignities which would continue even in death.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain) uses this relatively minor insult to kickoff the film in the scene mentioned above, one which alludes to another film with similar themes, David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980), where a deformed man learns that once free of a sideshow exhibition he is still a figure of fascination and mockery for society. Extending the allusion to that film further, Kechiche cuts to London 1810 where, in a traveling circus much like the one in Lynch's film, he gives us an extended version of the Hottentot Venus show as run by the theatrical Caezar (Andre Jacobs), a mercurial white South African who shares the profits with Baartman, justifying her "captivity" in a cage as simply part of the show since Saartjie can, in theory, walk away from the show at anytime. This gives Caezar free license to subject her to humiliating cruelty as he frees her from the cage, whips her, forces her to dance and sing like an "African native," and invites the audience to touch and squeeze her buttocks.
Imagine The Elephant Man, which I believe Kechiche is deliberately recalling, if that film only consisted of the abuse of its central character, never balancing the portrait with anything of substance to say about its hero. Near the film's conclusion, once the viewer has long ago gotten the point, Kechiche includes a scene in which Baartman finds herself on display for a private party among the Parisian elite (oh, those dirty French). Here, she is forced to strip and splay her legs open for the aristocrats to show off her distinctive feature, tears streaming down her face. At least that film's John Merrick is revealed to be a softspoken, erudite young man engaged with the world around him. Baartman is portrayed as an alcoholic who has given in to her punishment. She never achieves that state of grace Merrick does in Lynch's film. That is, unless you consider repetitive physical and psychological abuse to be sufficient to deliver that state of grace.
Kechiche implicates the viewer in Baartman's exploitation by often placing the camera in the audience, giving us the same first-person perspective any one of them would have. Early on, this is warranted as he establishes the disgusting prospects this "free" black woman had to contend with in her short life. But with a running time of nearly 3 hours, the repetition of the abuse heaped on Baartman begins to wear thin. Some might argue that this is Kechiche's very point. In his previous film, the director showed a great empathy for the plight of the immigrant in present-day Europe. However, here, there is no indication that he is making a larger allegorical point about such intolerance except for the most superficial connective details.
The impression, then, is of a filmmaker leering at his subject, exploiting her memory in much the same way her handler did two centuries ago. To their credit, the film's actors go to great lengths in avoiding any lascivious angle to their peformances. Torres, in particular, plays Baartman as too tired, too sick (Saartjie would die of either syphilis or some other ailment depending on the rumors you hear), and too depressed to come off as anything but sexy. Yet with the Lynch comparison rattling about in my head, I couldn't help but remember critic Roger Ebert's personal disgust at the way Lynch "exploited" actress Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet (1986), implying that the degradation she experienced wasn't warranted given the film's lack of importance. Though I dispute Ebert's assessment of Lynch's film, I find myself identifying with his disgust as it relates to Black Venus.
This brutal repetition puts Black Venus closer in temperament to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), a film in which the gory torture of Jesus Christ is so thoroughly covered, it borders on sadomasochism. And like in that film, I'm not sure the preponderance of debasement doesn't drown out any point it's trying to make.
Black Venus is playing at the 48th New York Film Festival at 6 p.m. Thursday, October 7th, and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, October 9th, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050