Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Review: Black Venus
Here's a good movie that I would devote more time to if I thought that anyone else were going to see it. It's funny that I just covered all of David Lynch because Black Venus is pretty much the anti-Elephant Man. Also, it's kind of like Precious without the redemption.
Like Elephant Man, Black Venus is based on the true story of a freak show attraction; in this case, Sarah Baartman or "The Hottentot Venus." Sarah was exhibited around London and Paris in the early 19th century, and though she was fluent in Dutch, she was made to act like a savage, jiggling her enormous buttocks, snarling, and dancing wildly. The movie shows her master, Hendrick Cezar, forcing her to let the audience touch her to verify her authenticity. The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, probably elaborates on the actual story a bit when he shows the truly repulsive games high society French woman play with her. He's a provocateur, looking to shock and implicate his (probably white and wealthy) audience.
But the fate of Baartman shown in the movie is definitely real; she ended up a prostitute, then dead at the age of about 25. Until 1974 her genitals, brain and skeleton were on display in the Musee de L'Homme and her remains were finally returned to South Africa in 2002. These facts, shown right before the credits, give the racism on display in the movie a sense of relevency (I didn't even know it was true story until then).
I went through much of the the movie thinking that it was a pretty standard tale of humiliation and objectification, well done, but a little unnecessary. Then things got a little more interesting when Kechiche seemed to pass the limits of good taste, and I began to wonder if we weren't being manipulated just as much as Sarah's audience. And ultimately, the movie came off as thoughtful and necessary. A little long and uneven, perhaps, but important nonetheless.
A few more things to think about:
Sarah is not really shown as enslaved, forced to perform through physical force. She's multilayered, not just oppressed, and has free will, which makes her a more interesting character. There is some physical abuse, but mental resignation is really what pushes her towards her final humiliation. She's played by Yahima Torres, who's excellent.
The racism is not one sided either. Sarah is at once an object of desire, a medical curiosity, a savage, and a means of attaining wealth. The white characters receive varying degrees of sympathy from the audience.
Abdellatif Kechiche, who directed L'Esquive (a very interesting movie that gives an honest and intimate portrayal of disenfranchised French teenagers from the banlieu), and The Secret of The Grain (haven't seen) is definitely someone to watch.
I just researched the film to find out more about the "relevency" that I cited earlier and found that Kechiche deplores "the scornful way we treat people" and specifically mentions the expulsion of Gypsies that the French government is undertaking. It's something that's very much on the minds of the French, although less so now given how much they care about their retirement. In any case, there's definitely a message about human dignity in Black Venus that should be taken to heart.