rue dilatory history of an epically abused woman
Tunisian-born, French-resident filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche has focused on French-born Arabs in his acclaimed earlier films (two of them swept the French Oscars and he has won top prizes at Venice and elsewhere). This time he has turned to an historical study of brutality and intolerance. It’s the story of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” a women born in South Africa and brought to Europe in the early 19th century to be paraded as a carnival wild woman because of her measurements. She was pursued by racist French scientists, who could not get her to show them her genitalia but made casts of them and her body and kept her skeleton on display on the pretext that “Hottentots” were proven through her to be closer to monkeys than Europeans and therefore of an inferior race. These relics were displayed at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until the Seventes, and finally, in response to protests, returned to Saartjie’s native South Africa in 2002 and buried close to where she was born.
A brave performance by Cuban-raised Yahima Torres anchors the film, which shows exhaustively how Saartjie was humiliated in performances first in London, where she and her minders are taken to court for slavery or abuse, but her testimony leads to dismissal. The trial is shown in detail — too much detail, like everything else. Then she is taken to Paris for similar performances. Kechiche reports having extensively studied the records, but much is not clearly known; in some cases where it is known, such as her age, he has made changes. In his imagining, Saartjie is abandoned by her erstwhile protector, Caezar (André Jacobs) for lack of cooperation, and turned over to an animal trainer associate, Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), who uses her for “sex slave” shows to aristocratic French libertines along with a rough carnival woman and whore, Jeanne (Elina Löwensohn). It is at one of these, which rival Pasolini’s Salo for shock value, that she is spotted by anatomist Georges Cuvier (Francois Marthouret), who decides her negro head shame and facial features and her steatopygic thighs (much exploited in the shows) make her good material for his racist studies. When the French sex show opportunities dries up, partly due to the old suspicion that Saartjie or “Sara” is being abused, Réaux turns her into a simple prostitute. Eventually, Saartjie, who has continually taken refuge in drink, is turned out of the brothel on suspicion of venereal disease, and dies, probably of that and pneumonia, whereupon the scientists get her body to dissect and make a cast of — also shown in detail.
This is essentially a period, costume biopic, and while Kechiche’s work is still strong in the many ensemble scenes — the French scientists in the prologue; the English and French carnival crowds; the particularly disturbing French libertine sequences — and in directing the hitherto inexperienced Torres in a performance full of strength and forbearance, there is, overall, little to set this apart from other films about exploited performers, circuses, and sleazy manipulators except for the excessive length of Kechiche’s repetitious sequences, which are all allowed to run to two or three times the necessary length to get their point across, and then get it across again. Kechiche seems out of his element here, and despite the intensity and richness of scenes there is a generic quality his films never had before.
It also seems that Kechiche crosses the line in too bluntly showing the “Hottentot Venus’” cruel objectification, or, if you grant that may have been necessary, he blunts the point by illustrating this objectification too repetitively. Is the film painful to watch because it needs to be, or because the filmmaker didn’t know how to present his information with economy and true force?
Abdellatif Kechiche has won extraordinary acclaim in France and internationally since 2000, the year of his first film, Blame It on Voltaire (La faute à Voltaire, 2000). His second film, Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive, 2005) won Césars for best film, best director, and best scenario. His third, The Secret of the Grain (Le grain et le mulet, 2007), again won Césars for best film, best director, and best scenario. And there have been other awards at Venice and elsewhere. Black Venus/Venus noire was received with less enthusiasm at Venice this year. It was recognized as a brave and important project that went astray. Despite much disturbing and raw material, the film is likely to be widely seen, and its complicated message about racism, human degradation, and exploitation of women can’t fail to make an impact. But coming from Kechiche it is a disappointment and seems a wrong turn.