Some stories need to be told, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those stories–transcribed to film–result in an enjoyable or entertaining experience. This of course brings up the whole question of just what we expect when we place a DVD in the player. I know that I want to be entertained. If I’m educated in the process, then that’s great, but while Vénus Noire (Black Venus) tells an incredible story, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Am I glad I watched it? Yes.
Vénus Noire begins in France with a scene of eager young doctors at the Royal Academy of Medicine. It’s 1815 and this is a lecture hall filled with young men studying medicine. The lecturer proceeds to hand around a jar containing the unusual genitals of a “Hottentot” woman, and he also has a life size cast of the woman’s body. The upshot of the lecture is that the Hottentot woman resembles the baboon–rather than the human. That sort of gives you an indication of what you are in for with this story.
Vénus Noire is Saartjie Baartmann (Yahima Torres), a former servant from the Cape who in 1808 travelled with her entrepreneur employer, Hendrick Cezar (Andre Jacobs) to London. Lured by the promise of riches and the possibility of owning her own farm in the Cape, Saartjie becomes a highly successful draw and a big moneymaker. Hundreds squeeze into the shabby little theatre and watch the so-called Hottentot Venus who is dressed in a sheer costume, paraded around in chains like a wild animal, and managed with a whip. Off the stage, Saartjie smokes cigars, knocks back booze and even shops followed by two black attendants, but Saartjie and Cezar’s performance outrages certain members of the African Association (Britain saw the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807) who see Saartjie as horribly exploited. Saartjie and Cezar end up in court with both of them arguing that she performs of her own free will. She’s not a slave, and yet due to racial inequalities, it’s easy to argue that the act which is in extremely bad taste, also exploits Saartjie–after all what other choices does she have?
When Saartjie is more or less forced to leave England due to the messy trial, things go downhill. They hook up with animal trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) and Jeanne (Elina Lowensohn) and become the entertainment for various Paris salons, kink shows, and brothels. If Saartjie was exploited before, it’s nothing to what awaits her in Paris….
At 159 mins. Vénus Noire is a long film, and throughout the course of the tale, Saartjie’s act doesn’t basically change–although it is modified to include even more degrading exhibitions. During the performances, Saartjie objects occasionally, and most of the objections occur when she’s fondled by the audience or required to exhibit her genitals–either at kinky parties or for French doctors. Films which require the audience to accompany the protagonist on a journey of degradation can be extraordinarily painful and even an exercise in masochism. As the endless scenes from Saartjie’s act continue, I’ll admit that I had a difficult time watching performance after performance of this poor woman who is trotted out for ‘entertainment’ repeatedly.
Vénus Noire is most interesting for its blurred boundaries. Is Saartjie, for example, performing of her own ‘free will’? Well, if ‘free will’ means that she agrees to walk on stage, then, yes, she’s there of her own free will. But if ‘free will’ means that Saartjie wants to perform for a leering, groping crowd, then the answer is ‘no,’ Saartjie is not acting through free will. There are several other instances of the blurring of boundaries in the film–Saartjie is forced to exhibit her genitals for the pervs of Paris and for the doctors of the Royal Academy. Is there a difference? Both lots pay for the pleasure, and one lot may be drooling, but for Saartjie, who’s on the receiving end of the voyeurism, there’s little difference.
And of course, finally, the Royal Academy, measuring every angle of Saartjie’s body (reminds me of the Nazis) make note of her genitals and extraordinary buttocks, yet panning the audience of Saartjie’s shows, we see only crowds of freaks–the ugly, the deformed, the pock-marked–a race of imperfects who squintingly point a finger when noticing the differences of others.
From director Adellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain)