29 September 2013
Starting in 1810, a woman named Sarah (“Saartjie”) Baartman — born enslaved among the Khoi people in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa — spent five years allowing herself to be exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus” in Britain, Ireland, and France. People flooded to see her in part because of her large, protruding buttocks, but even more because everything about her appearance seemed so “exotic,” including her dancing. In re-creating Baartman’s story, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (Vénus Noire) raises the right question: to what extent was she in control of her fate?
The answer is not. at. all. And that made my feminism hurt.
It’s been a long time since I hated watching a movie so much as I did this one. Nor can I remember having my mind so tweaked for days afterward. This film dares you to pronounce it too long (166 mins), too didactic, too depressing.
The fact is, it’s hard to watch a film about a character so abject as Saartjie (Yahima Torres), especially because by the time the film opens, she has already sunk into an alcoholic depression. That’s right: this is a very long film about a depressed woman exhibited as a freak in cultures that despise Black people.
Is there another way to tell this story, except to underscore Saartjie’s abjectness? In a long early sequence, Kechiche recreates the scene of her performances. Her partner/handler, Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs), appears onstage as an exemplar of the brave white European explorer, issuing hyperbolic, dramatic warnings to his audience about the dangers posed by this specimen from “darkest Africa” while Saartjie waits in a cage, leash around her neck. On cue, she growls and claws at him like an animal, movements choreographed by the two of them long ago, but which she now clearly finds demeaning and emotionally exhausting. Once released from the cage, she moves about the stage to thrill the audience, dances, and pretends to want to attack her spectators. The entire act follows in this vein, culminating with Cezar allowing members of the audience to come up and touch her buttocks. The pain on her face is excruciating.
As historical re-enactment, it’s riveting. As a film, it’s excruciating.
If Saartjie pretends to be animalistic to make money, the director makes it clear that her freak-show viewers are the true animals. They glean safety in numbers as they laugh uproariously at her movements and marvel at her unusual physical shape, moving up toward the stage to touch her behind. Even if she and Caezar have a backstage relationship more like partners, the onstage performances are killing her.
Except when she dances. Saartjie closes her eyes and enjoys her own performance; the audience grows silent; and everyone forgets the exaggerated civilization vs. savagery script in which they’ve been acting.
Not long into Saartjie and Caezar’s run of performances, a humanitarian group called the African Association brought them to court for violating Britain’s 1807 Slave Act abolishing the slave trade. The Association charged that Saartjie was a slave being held in degrading conditions, both of which violated the new Slave Act. They also offered evidence to support these charges. Saartjie appears on her own to refute those charges — in fact, she testified for three hours, insisting that she was guaranteed half the profits and had every right to exhibit herself as she pleased.
Even as she testifies eloquently about her rights, her freedom to earn money in her own way, and her agency to make her own decisions, us viewers find ourselves confounded — trapped between what we have already seen of her alcoholic misery and our desire for her to, indeed, have “rights” and “freedom.” Is she telling the truth, or has she been compelled? Is she fooling herself — that is, does she need to believe these statements because she’s so miserable? The fact that the court finds in her favor hardly answers those questions.
Once found to be a free woman by the court, Saartjie finds herself under increasing pressure not only to continue performing as a racial freak, but — for the first time — to display her genitals and to be exploited as a sexual oddity.
Her partner Caezar abandons his financial interest in the Hottentot Venus exhibition to a Frenchman named Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) who doesn’t bother to pretend Saartjie is his partner. Traveling to France, he exhibits her in every way he can find — from gatherings of lascivious aristocrats to mixed-class groups fascinated by sexual perversion, and eventually as a museum object for the anatomist Georges Cuvier of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.
What is worse? Being the central objet in a group of perverts, or being measured by a group of scientists who harass her to show her genitalia, which are larger in Khoi women than many other groups?
This film never lets you forget how you’re supposed to feel about these scenes, about Saartjie’s subjection, about her increasing helplessness. In some ways it represents the filmic version of those outraged scholarly books that seem not to know that we all think racism is bad. At the same time, it displays scenes from our racist history that capture something true. It is true because it shows her desire to believe that she has free will together with the fact that she does not.
So did I hate this film because it was long and didactic, or did I hate it because I want to see women with some degree of free will? Shouldn’t I recommend a film that displays the depths of horror of a woman’s life without agency?
The film made me angry and frustrated — and hell, I do this hard stuff for a living. Did I need the preachiness of “racism is bad” pounded into me for 166 minutes? Did I need the endless scenes of her drinking, being mistreated, getting sicker, and being probed by the scientists in Paris? Did I need this film — one of the very few that features a Black woman as its central character — to show her so unhappy throughout? I wanted to turn it off even though I knew about most of that stuff before seeing the film. For others this might be a revelation.
Maybe it made my feminism hurt so much because this film seems to fit so neatly into how feminism gets depicted by haters: as a man-hating, humorless, everything-is-bad movement of dreary types. Or maybe it’s because the film so resolutely denies that Saartjie had any feminist or anti-racist possibilities before her.
So let me sum it up: damn. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll keep running over those scenes for days afterward. It’s the best worst film I’ve ever seen.