Friday, 5 February 2016

WATCHING: BLACK VENUS (2010)


For all the arguments you can have about how bias can effect the out come of a film, especially one based on a true story, there are moments when it seems impossible to imagine a scene unless it is dramatised and presented to you via the lense of a camera. Black Venus, based on the life of Saartjie Baartman, is one of those films. It really does take you back when you watch a 19th century doctor pass around the genitals of a recently deceased woman, to the amazement of the gallery, and then go on to describe Baartman, using archaic and socially predjudiced science, as more akin to a mandrill than a human. Although you know that this is how people once thought, it is truly shocking to hear it said out loud. And this is just the first ten minutes.

Baartman achieved a certain kind of fame as a side show attraction called "The Hottentot Venus" in abolitionist England. Promised riches by her South African "business partner", she was presented to the public as a captured savage, infamous for her steatopgyia, or large buttocks. It didn't take long for people to accuse her business partners of slavery, and after a court case where she had to say that she does this through choice, she then travels to Paris, where people don't seem to worry so much about the unsettling overtones to her act.


Abdellatif Kechiche (who has since become more well known for receiving the Palme d'Or for Blue is the Warmest Colour) kept the style of Black Venus more pare downed, but this is a story told in its edits, with each cut accentuating the turn of events in Baartman's life. One scene see's Baartman (Yahima Torres) being coerced into sex with her latest business partner Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), promising her that she'll be taken to the highest sphere's of society. The cut jumps to a scene in a private Parisian party where she is paraded and whipped. Later on, the scene is mirrored again, almost like the punch line to a cruel joke, but this time she is at a sexual-themed party and people are invited to gape at her naked body, much to her embarrassment and shame.

The film does take an almost voyeuristic look at the last five years of her short life, and the relentless drumming home of how terrible her situation was will feel pedantic, especially teamed with the 166 minute running time. This is a brutal film, but is about a woman whose life still echos on in society, specifically in consideration to the immense popularity of fetishised black female bodies, especially the likes of Kim Kardashian and Beyonce (who was confirmed, then quickly denied to be writing and staring in a film about Baartman's life earlier this year).


This is a bleak film about a woman who had all control and choice ripped away from her, even after death. I wish at some point during the film Kechiche could of inserted a few scenes where we could see Baartman as something other than a victim, but ultimately he, nor history, is wanting to tell that story. Black Venus is a film that will pain you watch and but will haunt you for days afterwards.

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