Black Venus (Venus Noire)

Movies, Drama
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Black Venus (Venus Noire)
As far as punishing movie experiences go, the new movie from ‘Couscous’ director Abdellatif Kechiche deserves some sort of special prize from the Venice Film Festival judges for services to suffering. As he demonstrated in that previous work (and confirms here), the 49-year-old, French-Tunisian filmmaker sculpts films from densely-populated blocks of detailed story, letting them play out in near-real time and making sure he has a camera trained on every valuable gesture in the vicinity.

This mode of filmmaking can reap warm rewards: just recall the celebrated, Altmanesque dinner-table scene in ‘Couscous’. But if these scenes depict misery, abuse and exploitation, it means we are forced to endure every painful nuance until the episode draws to its natural conclusion. That's the case with 'Black Venus', and it's tough going.

The film opens in early-nineteenth-century Paris, where a scientist at the city’s Natural History Museum is presenting a lecture on their new exhibit: the Hottentot, a bulkily-framed female found in southwest Africa and characterised by her over-sized posterior and the famous ‘Hottentot Curtain’, referring to her distended labia. Then we’re whisked to a carnival sideshow in London’s Piccadilly, where the notorious slave Sarah Baartman has been slipped into a revealing, skin-coloured body sock and is being paraded as a sexualised savage from the jungle under a banner announcing her as the Hottentot Venus.

Naturally, Kechiche depicts this grosteque show in its entirety, as Baartman is released from a cage and forced to sing, dance and shake her rear in front of an audience of enthralled Londoners by her whip-wielding ‘overseer’, Caezar (Andre Jacobs). Is she being manipulated for financial gain, or is she fully aware that she is the star attraction in a carefully composed theatre spectacle? Variations on this sequence of events play out over the 160-minute run-time, though as the show moves to Paris, her overseers (later including a one-note pantomime villain played by Olivier Gourmet) push her to ever more extreme lengths. Yahima Torres plays Baartman with a permanent grimace suggesting a deep-seated distress, but she still goes along with her assigned role and debases herself at the order of Caezar. She’s a cold, unreadable presence, and due to the structure of the film, we’re given scant detail about her upbringing or aspirations. This makes her sustained suffering not just difficult to bare, but difficult to sympathise with. Of course we have the urge to feel for her, as it’s clear she’s being exploited, but her passivity is baffling, and Kechiche does little to justify why she (and we) should have to endure this torture over and over.

The material is fascinating and throws up ideas about the legacy of slavery in Europe, the many subtle forms that racism can take and the way people conquer their fears of otherness by resorting to aggression. The direction and production design are dazzling too, with Kechiche lending most scenes the gaudy grotesque of a William Hogarth cartoon, all rosy-cheeks, mutton-chops and thick Cockney drawls cackling and jeering at this cruel exhibition. But the film lacks any strong point to it (at least one that is identifiable and relatable) and any entry point under the skin of our tragic heroine. The frantic style of the editing and camera movement may give the impression of warmth, but Kechiche handles the material with hands that are ice cold.

By: David Jenkins

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Cast and crew

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Screenwriter: Abdellatif Kechiche
Cast: Jaime Torres
Olivier Gourmet
André Jacobs
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