VENICE — A punishing shocker of a film, “Black Venus” is not one that will be easily forgotten by audiences who stick out its nearly three hour running time. Director Abdellatif Kechiche entices the viewer into a carnival tent of a film, where morbid fascination vies with shameful voyeurism. One of the strongest condemnations of racism, colonialism and misogyny in contemporary filmmaking, it elicits strong feelings of moral revulsion and disgust, which are not indicators of great commercial success outside hard-core art houses.
Though it takes some artistic liberties, the script remains fairly close to the true story of Saartjie Baartman, an over-sized South African girl brought to London as a sideshow attraction called “the Hottentot Venus.” Kechiche and Cuban-born actress Yahima Torres bring the story vividly to life — perhaps too vividly for viewers who don’t want their noses rubbed such a sad and degrading tale, in which they themselves are implicated. The dignity the filmmakers give to Baartman’s unhappy life is unquestionable. But at the same time, they deliberately put the viewer in the extremely uncomfortable position of turning Saartjie into an object of sexual voyeurism once more.
Despite the mixed emotions it is certain to arouse, the film represents a career milestone for the director, who three years after the art house success of “The Secret of the Grain” (a.k.a. “Couscous”) has marked out his territory as the most original voice of the immigrant experience in Europe.
For Saartjie is an immigrant. She comes to London in 1810 with the Capetown farmer Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs), whose goal is to make money exhibiting her unusual body with its enlarged buttocks and pendulous genitalia. Saartjie, whose desire is to become an artist, is forced to pretend to be an animal in a cage who first snarls at the audience, then allows herself to be touched. Degrading enough, but the worst is yet to come.
When Caezar, who is also her lover, passes her on to the crude bear-tamer Reaux (Olivier Gourmet), she ends up in Paris performing as a sex slave in fashionable, and then less fashionable, salons. One of the most repulsive scenes takes place before an audience of libertines, who push Saartjie to exhibit her private parts for their amusement and arousal. At this point the audience simultaneously identifies and sympathizes with the humiliated Torres, and stares at her displayed body along with the depraved French public, in a highly uncomfortable example of cinematic schizophrenia.
And to rub the racism in, Kechiche tops the list of villainous voyeurs with the respected bourgeois anatomist Georges Cuvier (Francois Marthouret), who cold-bloodedly sets about measuring Saartjie’s body “for science” and concludes that her indented skull proves the inferiority of her race.
The girl’s silent refusal to allow him to examine her below the belt deserves a cheer. Cuvier wins out in the end, however, violating her body after her death, dissecting it and creating a plaster cast that remained on display in a Paris museum until 1976.
In her first screen appearance, Torres falls so naturally into the main role that there is little sense of an actor acting, despite the larger-than-life character she plays. Her huge, deep eyes speak volumes as they reflect the kind words and cruelty of those around her. The final scenes of her degradation are truly heart-breaking.
Supporting roles are also strong and vividly raw, from Jacobs as Saartjie’s original master and lover, to Gourmet’s less shaded, more bestial Reaux, who physically whips her in public. Elina Lowensohn is penetrating as a hard-drinking prostitute, who contrasts to the delicate South African woman.
More than leisurely paced, the film is needlessly repetitious and could be much shorter without losing meaning or suffering.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)
Production companies: MK2, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs, Olivier Gourmet, Elina Lowensohn, Francois Marthouret, Michel Gionti, Jean-Christophe Bouvet
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Screenwriters: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalya Lacroix
Producers: Marin Karmitz, Nathanael Karmitz, Charles Gillibert
Director of photography: Lubomir Bakchev, Sofian El Fani
Production designer: Florian Sanson, Mathieu Menut
Music: Slaheddine Kechiche
Costumes: Fabio Perrone
Editors: Camille Toubkis, Ghalya Lacroix, Laurent Rouan, Al bertine Lastera
Sales Agent: MK2
No rating, 160 minutes