Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Black Venus (orig. Vénus noire) [2010]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
Allocine.fr listing*

La Croix (A. Schwartz) review*
Le Monde (T. Sotinel) review*
Le Figaro (M.N. Tranchant) review*
L'Humanité (D. Widemann) review*

aVoir-aLire.fr (R. Le Vern) review*
Slant Magazine (A. Cutler) review
Village Voice (M. Anderson) review

Black Venus (orig. Vénus noire) [2010] [IMDb] [AC.fr]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Abdellatif Kechiche [IMDb] [AC.fr]* along with Ghalia Lacroix [IMDb] [AC.fr]*) is a film that (repeatedly) was very hard to watch.  A historical drama that played recently at the 2015 Chicago French Film Festival (July 31 - Aug 6, 2015) held here at the Music Box Theater, it tells the shockingly sad but tragically _true_ story of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman.

Born around 1790, Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman (played in the film by Yahima Torres [IMDb] [AC.fr]*) was a native South African of the Khoi people.  A servant (but she insisted never a slave, though perhaps a distinction without much difference except perhaps _to her_ ...) to white Afrikaner settlers, she was taken around 1810 by one of them, Hendrick Ceazar (played by André Jacobs [IMDb] [AC.fr]*) to Europe - to LONDON then to PARIS - to perform as AS A FREAK-SHOW CIRCUS ACT.

To some extent one has to understand that most Europeans, especially common ones, had NO IDEA WHO Africans were or WHAT they looked like.  So seeing a fairly large dark-skinned woman with a large dexterior was wildly outside their day-to-day experience.  The problem, of course, was that Hendrick's Ceazar's show PLAYED (indeed PREDATED) ON Saartijie's quite normal South African physique (and European ignorance) as well as on Europeans' sense of manifest superiority -- it could have well been that English and later French "customers" had friends / relatives similarly proportioned BUT Saartijie (or the "Hottentot Venus" as she was called) was dark complected and hence seemed both _exotic_ and _backward_.

Indeed, throughout the story there were various people, both English and French, who _tried_ at least _in part_ to defend her humanity including a group of English abolitionists who brought a court case up on her behalf. 

But MOST could not but see her as _above all_ an exotic _specimen_:  A group from the French Academy of Natural Sciences WANTED TO STUDY HER and were willing to pay Ceazar (and Saartjie) a handsome fee to do so.  And in part they were _clinical_ about their study of her (taking sketches, making measurements of her, etc, etc).  But when she refused to let them _study_ (or "study") her privates, their "deal" fell through.

It was at this point that Ceazar's interest in Saartjie also collapsed, and her life proceeded then in a downward spiral where she ended up inevitably working as a prostitute.

The final indignity came after her death in 1815: The men of the French Academy of Natural Science came back and "bought" her body from her former circus associate Réaux (played by Olivier Gourmet [IMDb] [AC.fr]*) who along with his common-law wife/partner (played by Elina Löwensohn [IMDb] [AC.fr]*) served as her "managers" (and basically pimps/partners in prostitution) in her later years.   After her death then, the men then of the French Academy of Natural Science got their chance to "examine" her genitals which they _cut out_ of her and _displayed_ along with cast model of her body and her skeleton at the Museum of Man in Paris until 1974.

The poignant postscript to her life is shown as the film's final credits run:  After the fall of Apartheid in South Africa, in 1994 President Nelson Mendela FORMALLY PETITIONED the French Government to return Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman's remains to be buried in her homeland.  Nearly 10 years of wrangling followed.  Finally, on August 9, 2002 she was buried near the town of Hankey in the Gamtoos Valley where she was born.

Hers was an absolutely awful story, and yet the film did show that she _always_ kept a dignity about her.  FOR ONE, SHE CAME TO SPEAK FOUR LANGUAGES: her native Khoi, Afrikans, English and finally French.  She actually defended herself in the English trial about her status declaring that she was NOT a slave and that she freely acted (how free was she?) her part in her / Ceazar's show, for which she said she was _paid_ (how much?).    She also REFUSED to show her genitals for the "good men" of the French Academy of Natural Sciences, causing her to lose her "partnership" with Ceazar as a result.  Even so, she refused to bend.  She did eventually fall into prostitution, but even there she maintained _some_ control over her destiny.  Her story was then, both awful, and also _not completely awful_.  And certainly, her trials (if tragically only in retrospect) _thoroughly shamed_ her contemporaries.

One powerful film, very difficult to watch but worth its pain / shame to all of us.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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