Kechiche’s work about the real-life 19th-century racial and sexual exploitation of an African woman as an ethnic curiosity is bound to offend, but it is solid as a biopic that tackles the inherent voyeurism of the colonial gaze.
Cast: Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs, Olivier Gourmet, Elina Lowenshohn
Plot: Saartjie left her native South Africa with her master, Caezar, to expose her body to the audiences of London’s freak shows. Free and enslaved all at the same time, the “Hottentot Venus” became an icon in the slums, destined to be sacrificed in the pursuit of a shimmering vision of prosperity.
Awards: Won Equal Opportunity Award & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature – Racial & Sexual Exploitation; Colonial Gaze
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Abdellatif Kechiche is no stranger to courting controversy, with the likes of Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) and the Mektoub, My Love (2017, 2019, forthcoming) films, where he came under fire for exploiting the trust of his female actresses by sexualising their bodies in prolonged scenes of explicit sex.
It is of no surprise then that Black Venus would begin with a prologue featuring a scientific conference where a French anatomist explains in graphic detail—and with specimens to boot—to an audience of similar ilk (i.e. old white men) the unique characteristics of an African woman with unusually large buttocks and genitals.
The woman is Saartjie Baartman, a real-life figure who was racially and sexually exploited as an ethnic curiosity in a series of freak show attractions in the early 19th century, and later, became sought after by the aforementioned anatomists.
“They can look, but not touch.”
Played by Yahima Torres (in her only acting role) with extraordinary tenacity and quiet abandon, Saartjie’s silence reveals so much of the torment that she has to put up with on a daily basis—and willingly at times in hopes of doing her part working towards a more prosperous future.
Saartjie puts faith in her ‘performances’ for the crowd, which includes conforming to stereotypes of a ‘savage’, and as a result, satisfying every white person’s naïve fantasy of a black woman—but is all the voyeurism inherent in the colonial gaze worth the pain and suffering?
I’ve got a feeling Kechiche doesn’t really care, except to tell the story of his protagonist as authentically as possible, even if that means being offensive. Black Venus is a solid biopic nevertheless, though it can be difficult to watch without becoming complicit in its problematic gaze.