Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Vénus noire / Black Venus (2010)

Monday night, I was very excited to present Vénus noire, the latest film by Abdellatif Kéchiche.  But my excitement was tempered with trepidation. This one of those movies that I feel merits a warning at the beginning of the screening, but not for the typical reasons. It is explicit without being grotesque; it is deliberate and at the same time subtle. It is far and away the best cinematic critique of colonialism - both old and new - that I have every seen.
Saartjie Baartman, is a woman born of the Khoikhoi tribe in present-day South Africa. In 1808, Hendrick Caezar, the brother of her former master, convinced her to leave for Europe, where they might both find fame and fortune. Their method? Exhibiting Saarjtie's body in a humiliating carnival show. English anti-slavery partisans bring the act up on charges, and so Caezar, Saartjie and a new acquaintance, bear-tamer Réaux, head for Paris. Once again, the act plays in carnivals, then in the aristocratic salons of Paris, and later on among the libertines. During this time, the French anatomist and eugenist Georges Cuvier takes an interest in her unusual anatomy (enormous buttocks and labia), but not in her mind, personality or native culture. Refusing to let the scientist fully examine her, she is effectively sold by Caezar to Réaux and finally rejected even by him to, ending up a prostitute.  She dies alone of pneumonia and a venereal disease in 1815, aged only 27. Her body is returned to Cuvier and his colleagues, where is is dissected, examined, preserved and a replica displayed in the Paris Musée de l'homme until 1974.
The film is both masterful and powerful, but it's not accurate to call Vénus noire "engaging." Indeed, the source of of the movie's power resides within a tension between our (Western) expectation to be able to identify with the protagonist and Kechiche's choice to continually deny that identification. Saarjtie remains ever in shadow, ever in a cage of some kind, and always just outside our emotional reach. Even when during her monologue-like testimony at the English court-case, where she is obviously given the chance to speak for herself, we gain no clear insight into her psyche. In a less competently-constructed film, this would be a serious fault, but not so here. Kechiche uses his command of the cinematic form and his love (yes, love) for his subject to constantly transport us - he just takes us places we'd rather not go. For ours is the point of view of self-deceived Hendrick Caezar, of the unscrupulous Réaux, of the eugenist Cuvier; that is, of the Europeans that surround Saarjtie but never acknowledge her as a person. She is always nothing more than a means to an end.

The damnable thing is that these points of view are imminently sympathetic, even sometimes appealing. Caezar wants to earn enough money to return home to Cape Town and support his family. He wants Saarjtie to be an equal in their enterprise - or at least that's what he says. When at last he breaks down and physically assaults her, his motivating frustration is shockingly understandable. Even Réaux's appalling actions are tempered by an almost tender seduction scene. Georges Cuvier, too, has a sympathetic portrait. His aims are purely scientific, improving his knowledge of the human form, of our evolution and therefore, future as a living race upon this world. There's no malice to his endeavor.

But neither is there any humanity. And realizing this is the careful trap that Kechiche lays for us time and again, using our expectations - and eventually, our very hope - to lead us into blind alleys of disquiet. It is a small-voiced tragedy of tremendous proportions.

Vénus noire isn't distributed in the United States, despite some impressive critical accolades in France and a nomination for a Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. Frankly, I'm not surprised, just a little disappointed. You can get it on a Region 1 DVD from Amazon Canada.

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