Black Venus by Abdellatif Kechiche is a grueling and unforgiving exploration of the real life story of Saartjie 'Sarah' Baatman, a South African women who performed in vaudeville shows in early 19th century London and Paris. With a running time over two and a half hours, this film is a marathon made even more challenging by the unrelenting emotional and physical torture Saartjie and by extension the audience is forced to endure. Both mythological and cautionary in it's content, I highly recommend watching this contemporary masterpiece.
The film begins with a meeting of the Parisian natural history society as a professor lectures the crowd on the physical attributes and details of the museums newest edition to their unique creatures collection, the Venus Hottentot, also known as Saatjie Baatman (Yahima Torres) a young woman who died at the age of 25 from a cocktail of untreated diseases and alcoholism. From this clinical dissection of Saatjie the film jumps back in time to 1810 London where we watch the 'birth' of this vaudeville star. Saatjie and her 'handler' Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs) put on daily shows where Caezar plays the role of a gentleman explorer who has tamed and caged this wild beauty. He forces her to perform and sing and dance before coming to the climax of his show where the audience is allowed to feel her voluptuous body. As the film progresses we watch the next five years of Saatjie life unfold leading us through a descend into alcoholism, court cases, experiences in the upper echelons in Parisian society, whore houses and ultimately the dissection table of the Parisian natural history center five years later. The narrative is second to content and these vignettes could appear in almost any order with out greatly changing the over all message of the film which reaches for a truth beyond temporality.
In order to address the message, It is important to explore how this movie arrives there. Through the beautifully constructed sets and expertly chosen extras this film appears to be a hyper-real reimagining of the early 19th century. Almost as if the screen is populated with the smoky London streets and hedonistic Parisian parties our collective consciousness calls up with thinking of this time. Coupled with the unquestionably evocative and larger then life performance and body of Yahima Torres, one finds themselves seduced into seeing this film more as a modern cautionary mythology tale rather then a biopic. This distance between content and performance that we the audience want to impose on this film in order to watch it is powerful for it underlies our collective concern as to the nature of performance. To watch this film as the biopic it is, is to unrelenting. One needs this distance to come to terms with the themes so boldly presented by Kechiche. So I applaud his slight fictionalization of the narrative and his decision to create minuscule narrative breaks where within this storm of discontent he allows moments of beauty and joy to escape. Yet perhaps it is a failing of the film that many people seemed unable to remain interested in Saatjie's plight. The running time is unquestionably long and by the third act, the rapes which are present with such little dramatic flair become unquestionably startling.
From the onset of this film, when Kechiche exposes us to her dissected body asking us to join in with the fellow professors in voyeuristically exploring her corpse, Kechiche is actively opening up this film as a discourse on the forced objectification and sexualization of female performers. Much of this film is comprised of series of performances, and the parallels between Saatjie and contemporary female performers, especially singers, becomes increasingly apparent as we watch more and more characters in the film both objectify and consumer her.
It is this issue that BLACK VENUS so unflinchingly explores. The parallels between Saarjie and such mega stars as Britney Spears and Rihanna to Miley Cyrus may seem extreme but the differences are much smaller then the similarities. Be it Britney similar role as a performer exploited by a father figure, Rihanna's disturbingly similar outfits, or Miley decesion to perform 'savage' dance routines in cages while objectified by aristocratic audiences in such music videos as "CAN'T BE TAMMED" that beg us the audience to ask. What has changed? Just like Saarjie, who testifies in court that she wants to be an artist and agrees with the performance, one can not help but cry out for justice as we watch her soul slowly whittled away by the pressure society forces on her to confirm to the image of the sexual beast they so long her to become. She is degraded consumed and ultimately left as a husk of a women who can only turn to prostitution to continue making a living. Just as the paying members in the 19th century wanted to feast their eyes on the spectacle of the body, so do we. One might argue that the standards have chained, but like the Mega stars of today, Saarjtie is portrayed as wealthy and financially independent in this film, who is enslaved more by social pressures then social conditions.
This film makes a bold attempt to reach out to a social truth through a complex exploration of societies relationship with their 'stars'. though the long running time, the unrelenting images of rape, torture and humiliation one cannot escape this film with out feeling insulted, degraded and victimized by this often un-enjoyable film. Is this film fun to watch? No. Is it worth it? Yes. Through the phenomenal directing of Abdellatif Kechiche and the outstanding performances from all cast members, though especially Yahima Torres, who bring the plight of Saajtie so expertly to life, BLACK VENUS is a must see film.