By William Wolf

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2010--'BLACK VENUS'  Send This Review to a Friend

Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Black Venus,” a French import showcased at the 2010 New York Film Festival, is a no-holds-barred study in racism in the early 19th century. There are scenes to make one cringe as the so-called Venus Hottentot is displayed in embarrassing depths of exploitation. Yahima Torres gives her all in a touching performance marked by boldness, considering the exposure she endures in the film’s quest for reality.

The Venus Hottentot was really Saartjie Baartman, who came from Capetown, South Africa and apparently willingly participated in being exposed in what is depicted here as a charade designed to give the public what it wanted in terms of debasing, carnival-like exhibitions. For her the lure was the promise of money. Her odd assets were much-extended labia and a huge rump, and she became complicit in passing herself off as a freak of nature advertised as an untamed bush woman, at least according to this drama.

The exploitation extends to men of medicine and science who, at the start of the film, after Baartman has died, are seen examining her privates that have been preserved for such inspection. They see her as an example of their warped racist theories.

For the mass public, she is viewed in exhibitions, with her in a cage, staged and promoted by Hendrick Caezar, played flamboyantly by Andre Jacobs, on whom Baartman relies upon for money and for his promise to share their profits, which would enable her to return to South Africa as a woman of some financial substance.

Some of the cruelest scenes occur when she becomes the attraction at fashionable soirees. Being ogled in exhibitions, as horrible as such exploitation can be, is less demeaning in a sense than being paraded for upper class types who should have a greater sense of right and wrong. But they are titillated by the show presented in private gatherings. The situation is erotically disgusting and the director doesn’t shrink from candor.

The film is expansive in detailing this part of Baartman’s life—the movie runs 159 minutes—and ultimately there is a steep descent into tragedy, as she winds up in a brothel and as a result contracts venereal disease. At least that is the portrait here.

I heard some grumbling at the New York Film Festival that the film itself exploited the subject. I don’t see it that way. Without showing the ugly scenes, Kechiche could not have conveyed the full horror of what this woman was put through, whether by her own acquiescence or by the situation into which she was thrust. In any event, I found “Black Venus” thoroughly engrossing from start to finish.


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