History doesn’t get more intriguing than the fragments known about Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus whose outsized features became a freakshow attraction in early nineteenth century London and Paris. “Black Venus” doesn’t attempt the impossible by pretending to get inside Saartjie’s head, instead insisting on her inner dignity despite constant, terrifying humiliation. The project is valiant, but writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche has trouble finding a rhythm, and the overlong pic can be distressingly strident, making it painful to watch for reasons both good and bad. A terrific subject coupled with the helmer’s growing rep guarantees multi-territory sales, including Stateside.
Kechiche changes the historical account (Saartjie’s age, for starters — she was much older than 25 in 1810), presumably for the sake of narrative punch. Everyone wanted the “Hottentot Venus” to be something she wasn’t — a savage, a princess, a freak — and by straying from the record, Kechiche forces her to become something she’d surely shy away from: the representative of racial maltreatment, a symbol rather than a person. Yet thankfully the helmer also grants her private dignity and unfathomable thoughts that defy manipulation.
“Black Venus” has a bookended structure, opening in a Paris operating theater in 1815, when her body is dissected by scientists looking to prove their social Darwinist theories (before the term existed). Their cold-blooded “medical” discussions are discomforting, but only the tip of the iceberg.
Flashback to London, 1810: Saartjie, aka Sara (impressive newcomer Yahima Torres) is displayed in a cage by Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs) before a noisy working-class crowd. During the show she’s kept on a leash, menacing the audience and performing tricks like a dancing bear, culminating in Caezar urging the customers to touch her voluminous undraped behind. It’s all a put-on: she’s no savage, and despite her unwillingness to be pinched and prodded, Saartjie is a professional.
The scene is long but justifiably so: viewers need to experience the full extent of the performance in order to feel Saartjie’s power as an entertainer as well as her humiliation as a woman. The local press cries exploitation, leading to a court action to determine whether she’s being mistreated. In an unfortunately overdone scene, Saartjie proclaims her free will, and the case is dismissed.
Five years later the shows continue in Paris, where the sleazier Reaux (Olivier Gourmet) and his prostitute partner Jeanne (Elina Lowensohn) take control of the act, offering up a far more demeaning spectacle before increasingly up-market crowds. Top scientist Georges Cuvier (Francois Marthouret) sees the performance and becomes convinced Saartjie is the “Hottentot” specimen he needs to prove his racial theories, but she submits only to a limited amount of probing.
At a high-class brothel before a crowd of decadent aristos, Kechiche takes a page out of Pasolini’s “Salo,” unsparingly detailing the amoral perversions of the upper crust in an extended scene that’s very difficult to watch. Saartjie’s humiliation is so total, her treatment so bestial, that it plays like a scathing commentary not merely on the racial “other” but on the French themselves, especially seen in contrast with the English who try to rescue her from this sort of life. The French hardly had a monopoly on eugenics or debauchery, so it’s an odd contrast he’s set up between Brits fighting for the dignity of Man and the self-involved French pleasure-seekers.
But far more troublesome is the pic’s tonal problem: Every character apart from Saartjie laughs too loudly, screams too raucously and reacts too much, turning many scenes into an over-pitched assault that detracts from the true horrors of the woman’s degradation. Kechiche does well not to try to explain Saartjie’s actions — it remains a mystery why she declined the help of the English courts — and she has no grandstanding “Elephant Man” moment. But the exhaustion auds experience from the shrillness of the crowds should have been reserved for the performer, not the atmosphere.
Though a screen novice, Torres offers up a brave portrait with surprisingly little dialogue, endowing Saartjie with a palpable inner life whose depth is conveyed even when her thoughts and motivations remain hidden. Since the character drinks so much, she could have turned into a dazed victim, but instead there’s always a sense of something behind the deadened haze.
Camerawork is considerably less reality-inspired than in Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain,” utilizing a more controlled handheld style that still feels freed from corseted stillness. The digital format is most apparent in outdoor shots, notably London scenes with attractive matte backdrops that maintain an especially cold light, but otherwise the lensing is rich and attractive. Set designs feel self-contained and correct to the period without being slavishly exact; costumes, particularly in France, are more of a jumble.