“Black Venus” (“Vénus noire”)
An Uncompromising Work about Racism
Saartjie Baartman leaves Cape Town in 1810 for London, along with her master, Pieter Caezar, who intends to put her on show in a traveling fair. London audiences are fascinated by the young woman’s physical deformations, which are typical of Khoikhoi women: steatopygia (hypertrophy of the buttocks) and Sinus pudoris (greatly enlarged labia minora). She is then transferred to Paris and handed over to another master, bear tamer Réaux, and Saartjie wins over a new audience in high-society drawing rooms, serves as inspiration for a comic opera and attracts the curiosity of scientists, in particular well-known anatomist Georges Cuvier.
When her popularity wanes, Saartjie is forced to prostitute herself and in the end dies of pneumonia and venereal disease. Cuvier dissects her body, preserves her organs, takes an impression of her body and publishes the conclusions of his research which condemns “those races with depressed skulls” to eternal inferiority.
Abdellatif Kechiche directed this biography of Saartjie, whose remains were returned to South Africa and buried in her native region on South African Women’s Day, on August 9, 2002.
“Black Venus” explores the different stages of the degradation and oppression inflicted upon the Saartjie (Yahima Torres), including the vile and macabre details that may leave viewers feeling uneasy.
Kechiche puts emphasis on all the ambiguities and nuances of the historical episode. Saartjie is not a “slave”, she wasn’t forced against her will to display her body and to pretend to be a dangerous savage. Rather, she was instead the victim of a moral violence which is as intolerable as the physical kind. Saartjie aspired to be an artist and dreamed of expressing herself one day and making her name as a singer, musician and dancer.
We see the racism of the colonial era, the hypocrisy of the cultured classes, the intellectual dishonesty of the scientists who justified the exploitation of African people, power relations between men and women and sexual humiliation. We see the complexity of the relationship between people in show business and those who watch.
Kechiche subliminally describes how when he started out as an actor he found it hard to deal with people’s feeling caged in like Saartjie. Today, as a director, he is caged in by the aesthetic responsibility of directing the viewer’s gaze. He is now like Saartjie’s managers, Caezar (Andre Jacobs) and Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), and even scientist Cuvier (Francois Marthouret), who are concerned with giving audiences what they expect.
The film simultaneously celebrates and critiques sexualized racist exploitation, and, in effect, generates minor friction from its two-facedness even though its goal is punishing the audience. This is the true story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman aka the “Hottentot Venus,” a South African slave who became a European sensation as an exotic, animalistic dark-continent freak. The film begins after Saartjie’s death as a doctor discusses Saartjie’s uniquely protruding vaginal “apron.” From the very beginning Saartjie is reduced to a bizarre genetic anomaly, setting the stage for the flashback account of her life when she is forced into a life of humiliating performance, growling from a cage or on a leash. White audience members were granted the opportunity at each show’s end to touch her gigantic rear.. Kechiche’s distended staging of these events is meant to implicate the viewers as complicit voyeurs responsible for the crimes. The director’s own role in orchestrating them for cinematic view also incriminates him. However, this goes against the story’s damnation of Saartjie’s subjugation. The repetitiveness negates its critique since the film is part of the nastiness it derides with such gusto, and to such unnecessarily protracted lengths, that the effect is like being screamed at, about the same solitary subject, for two-and-a-half hours.
The film debates itself less than midway through. A performer’s handler stands accused of exploiting her, with a crowd of moral citizens howling epithets from the galleys. The man’s attorney steps forward and looks directly into the camera, addressing both the crowd and the viewer saying that we go to a performance with a different level of reality in mind, and we therefore watch with a dual consciousness. We both accept the reality of the performance and know that what we watch is not real.
We are shown events while understanding that what we watch is a representation of events. The film is a limited dramatic representation of real life. We don’t just react to the fictional Saartjie’s torments, but grow repulsed with the thought of how much worse her real suffering was. When Kechiche, however, applies this to history, there are problems.
To tell history is to interpret history, in other words. One could claim, perhaps rightly, that Kechiche’s absorption of this idea provides an honest telling of Baartman’s story. While history books falsely claim to tell the truth, Kechiche’s film honestly says it is fiction.
In the courtroom scene we see how manipulative Kechiche’s subjectivity is. The film presents those clamoring for Baartman’s divorce from her manager as a well-meaning, somewhat puritanical, somewhat hypocritical group simultaneously concerned for Baartman’s safety and well-being yet they are titillated by the sexuality of her act, and unaware of her status as a consenting paid employee. But the film downplays and/or ignores the facts that slavery had been abolished in England in 1806, four years before the trial took place, and that many of those calling for the trial were abolitionists concerned that the act’s popularity would give the government incentive to reinstate slave laws. By removing the crowd’s potential political motives, Kechiche opts to make the trial’s subtext sexual subjugation rather than legal slavery, and thus devalues the importance that slavery had not just in England, but also in the entire British Empire, at that time. The film suggests that she asserts herself in court out of loyalty to her accused manager, but it’s equally possible that she spoke in favor of him knowing that she risked enslavement and/or disease were they to be separated.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- Optional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks
- Optional English subtitles
- Brand-new appreciation of Black Venus and the cinema of Abdellatif Kechiche by critic Neil Young
- Theatrical trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Will Higbee, author of Post-Beur Cinema: North African Émigré and Maghrebi-French Filmmaking in France Since 2000