For Reel

Black Venus (2010)
March 9, 2012, 11:00 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Having found international success with The Secret of the Grain – which told the story of a Franco-Arabic family establishing a restaurant in a port town – director Abdellatif Kechiche has embarked on a drastically more radical course in documenting the immigrant experience in Europe. Saartjie Baartman, a slave from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, was brought to London in 1810 by Hendrick Cezar, a master/manager who exhibited her as the “Hottentot Venus” in carnival freak shows. These performances are reproduced in what might be their accurate duration: she growls in a cage as the act begins, and once Cezar bravely releases and tames her, she begins a tribal dance for the paying audience and invites them to touch her enlarged buttocks. Humiliating as it is, things get worse when she’s passed on to an opportunistic bear-tamer, is studied by scientists who are determined to examine her genitalia against her wishes, and later falls into prostitution. New-comer Yahima Torres plays Baartman, in what is nothing if not a physically demanding performance. So much so, in fact, that the picture raises all kinds of questions about exploitation. Kechiche’s condemnation of racism and misogyny is clear enough, however what he is trying to say about the audience is more evasive. In a court trial, Baartman defends her show as performance art, despite a few enraged British humanitarians who cry for her emancipation. Their hypocrisy and condescension is depicted almost grotesquely. Is Kechiche punishing his own audience? It is not clear. Whatever the case, one cannot dismiss the picture’s power, and, despite some critics’ reservations about its length, it is provocative enough to warrant such an expansive telling, as trying as it might be to endure.


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