If She Won't Be a Slave
From the European festival circuit, Black Venus/Vénus Noire arrives at the New York Film Festival, still without a distributor here. That’s a shame, for this is engrossing cinema raised even higher by thirty-year-old Cuban-born Yahima Torrès’ wrenching début.
From Tunisian-French director and co-writer Abdellatif Kechiche, this based-on-a-true story is not depressing, for its art elevates, but still distressing in the extreme. Things have not changed from its 1815 Europe, as the same racism, sexism, exploitation, greed, and nationalistic manifest destiny hold sway two hundred years later, unsoftened by seconds of end-credit sidebar concession of human remains repatriated for burial amidst celebration.
The lead actress’ “man can do very bad things” puts it mildly. Two ludicrously liveried blacks hired to show her London can do little, while prostitute companions merely cluck concern when she falls on hard times in Paris. Scottish M.D. Alexander Dunlop (Jonathan Pienaar) sees clearly but values cash, artist-anthropologist Jean-Baptiste Berré (Michel Gionti) gives her sketches and kind eyes but toes the line for racist academy head Georges Cuvier (François Marthouret), and bourgeois Louis XVIII salons applaud the woman as even the females ogle, fondle and go off into their own orgies. Mankind is pictured as a sorry lot indeed, morally inferior to the apes to whom men of supposed science would link “Hottentot Venus” Saartjie Baartman.
This period piece is not weighted down with visual details of an era and thus can resonate with wider issues. Freed “from those usual financial and time constraints,” the crew uses small sets to project sweatbox low English pubs and sideshow galleries, a curled-wig courtroom, perfume-over-body-odor soirées across the Channel and chilly examination rooms. “Far more interested in filming faces with the least make-up possible rather than sets and costumes,” cinematographers Lubomir Bakchev and Sofian el Fani use the close-up as it should be, and rarely is, not as gimmick become habit but, employed heavily throughout, to contribute in imaging the hearts within.
No face, and no person, stands out as does Saartjie’s. Given the stage act she plays within the story, and the foreign tongues that surround her, she speaks little. But her features, and especially the hooded observant eyes, more than reveal her sorrow, hopes, disappointments and self-control and the human dignity that lifts her above the astonished or lascivious or greedy crowd.
“Facts” about the life are few and not all that certain in laconic replies to a journalist or a judge: born near Boer Cape Town about 1790; a slave or perhaps ill-paid servant to Pieter Caezar and then his brother Hendrick (Andre Jacobs); a white lover who abandons her after their child dies, and a voyage to England with Hendrick, who leaves his wife and child at home to seek their fortune exhibiting her as caged, chained, growling bushwoman in flesh-colored tights and headband and loincloth. Next to their sideshow stall is that of another caged being, a black bear, operated by Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), who will bring the heroine, her owner/boss/manager/partner, and his own girlfriend Jeanne (Elina Löwensohn) to Paris, soon take over the whole show, and pimp the two women as erotic spectacle.
How far Sarah’s (as she is baptized, in another humiliation) participation is willing, how free or not she is, how much she is paid, is never quite cleared up, despite a High Court suit brought by the African Association -- the institution of slavery was in fact legal in England until 1833, abolished more for economic than moral concerns. She relies more and more on alcohol and occasionally balks at her degradation, but no physical coercion is shown.
Beyond her “exotic” origin and stage performance, a prisoner of others’ projections and expectations, Baartman was a famous object of curiosity, and of fantasy, due to enormous buttocks and labia majora. She will wiggle her behind, even allow customers to fondle it--one woman pokes it with an umbrella--but insists on keeping covered her genitals which, in unthinkable indignity, will later be shaved and pickled.
One shrinks from the woman’s continued humiliation by “civilization” and is repulsed by those who cause or contribute to it for one-hundred-fifty-nine minutes. It is a tribute to the actress and, indeed, to those who bring this story to the screen, that Baartman’s soul emerges intact. She encompasses both the unknowable mystery and the inviolability of the individual in this import that inspires as it angers.
(Released in France by MK2 Diffusion; not rated by MPAA.)