Vénus Noire (2010) (Black Venus)
Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (2010) opens with a scene set in the Royal Academy of Medicine, Paris during the year 1815, in which we see a group of biologists studying the preserved cadaver of an African woman. We learn that she was Saartjes Baartman (Yahima Torres, in a no-holds-barred, one-of-a-kind performance), a South Arican native who migrated to London (and, later, Paris) and allowed herself to be displayed by her employer as a savage in front of curious, paying customers. We see the ruthless physical and racial harassment – not entirely without her consent – that she undergoes. We also see that her status as an ethnic outsider cuts across class (the rich libertines of Paris as well as the proles of London throng to see her) and gender (there are, in fact, more women than men during these shows) divides. Structured as a series of exhibitions – classroom lectures, freak shows, courtroom hearings, party entertainment – Black Venus chiefly concerns itself with the process of comprehending, through the acts of seeing, hearing and touching. Saartjes becomes something of a litmus test for each set of audience, which affirms its own identity and view of the world though her radical ‘otherness’. (That these events take place just after the French Revolution produces interesting implications). During the five years she spends in Europe, Saartjes finds herself increasingly objectified (from a savage, to an exotic body, to an amalgam of unusual body parts) and mystified (that is, she becomes a sum of perceptions). Although overlong and overdetermined, Black Venus weaves a bracing film out of a devastating life story, a testament of whose power is the epilogue of the film, where we see Saartjes’ remains being returned by the French government to South Africa for her final rites.
(Image Courtesy: Slant Magazine)