Black Venus Review
Black Venus, or Vénus noire, tells the story of Saartjie 'Sarah' Baartman (Yahima Torres), a South African woman from the Khoikhoi tribe who is brought to England by the Cape Town farmer she worked for. There, she is put on display as a captured and savage African princess for the entertainment of the British public, the conclusion of which has strangers touching her enlarged buttocks. More misery is experienced when she meets a bear tamer called Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), who takes her to the courts of France. Baartman's exploitation continues as Réaux invites the audience to touch Baartman's genitals.
Structurally Black Venus is told in a series of episodes. The first, a ten minute scene where a scientist - later revealed to be George Cuvier (François Marthouret) - discusses the anatomy of a recently deceased woman of African origin, even passing around the preserved vagina of the woman, describing skull shape and then concluding that all Africans are inferior to European people, and therefore condoning the repugnant treatment of Sarah throughout the film. We see her forced to play the role of the savage and kept in a cage. We see her dance and act dumb. Worst of all, we see the viewing audience (of which we are also complicit) scared and entranced by it; enthralled by their twisted view of race.
This scene is just the first hurdle that the film throws at its audience. Lasting two hours and forty-five minutes, Black Venus is a slog of racism, colonialism, sexism and misogyny. Which is then repeated ad nauseum. When Réaux and his assistant take over, their 'show' in London seems like a walk in the park compared to the Eyes Wide Shut levels of sexual depravity, gratification and morbid curiosity displayed.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche draws us into the world through a fantastic doubling effect. In all the scenes of Baartman's dehumanisation he intercuts shots of audience members, their faces and their eyes. This film is about looking, it is a film about gazing, in part alluding to Mulvey's male gaze theory, but a gaze that objectifies people of colour.
While one could claim that the film and Kechiche are commenting upon the exploitation and degradation of Baartman when considering his previous film Blue is the Warmest Colour, an argument could be made that the film exploits Yahima Torres as Baartman to tell the story and convey the message the filmmaker wants. While it is ultimately for the greater good, the long and incredibly awkward scenes repeated seemingly forever, it is hard not to see Kechiche doing the same thing as Caezar, Reaux and the scientists. It is this cycle of exploitation that is inescapable and what makes Black Venus a unique cinematic experience led by the astonishing performance of Yahima Torres. The Cuban-born actress expresses so much hurt and anguish in the film it is unbearable.
Arrow Academy is responsible for this release and as usual they have produced a high quality disc. The film is presented in 1080p with either a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio or 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track that keeps the image crystal clear allowing for every ugly detail of the film to be seen; from the faces of the unwashed punters at Baartman's London shows to the disgusting trophies that the naturalists have in their laboratories. The inclusion of clear subtitles and easy to navigate menus in arrows signature style is always appreciated as well.
Aside from the film, the package also comes with an informative introduction to Kechiche's other work from critic Neil Young who gives us context for Black Venus within a highly unique filmography. The first pressing comes an illustrated collector's booklet containing writing new writing on the film by Will Higbee, author of Post-Beur Cinema: North African Émigré and Maghrebi-French Filmmaking in France Since 2000. These are good, personally I would have liked to have seen a few more historical extras focussing on Saartjie Baartman. However, due to the film’s gargantuan length I can see why there is a limit on extras.
While Black Venus is overlong, excruciatingly uncomfortable and repetitive it is a powerful, dark and beautiful film containing a heartbreaking central performance. It is not going to be for everyone and I would be the first to argue that this is not an entertaining film but essential viewing. It is vital for exploring a story that needs to be told, even if it is an ugly part of our history and culture many would rather sweep under the rug.