Black Venus / Vénus Noire (2010) Film Review

Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Written by Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix
Starring Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs and Olivier Gourmet

Black Venus is a film centered around the life and death of South African woman Sarah Baartman. Nicknamed Hottentot Venus, Baartman was exhibited as a freakshow attraction in 19th century Europe and lived a life that was unbefitting for even the vilest of human creatures. Her “career” began in Britain, where she was a performer wearing tight garments which showed off her enlarged bosoms and buttocks to a relatively poor British audience. The performance soon enraged the British community, however, resulting in much controversy and the show’s eventual export into to the homes of the French upper-class.

What Black Venus grimly captures is not the glitz and glamour of “show business,” but what happens when a naive young woman is misled by the promises of opportunity. The film explores the worst capabilities of human beings and their yearnings to manipulate and take control of others; it addresses multi-tiered issues of race, class, and opportunity and does so with faithfulness to realism, even when realism is uncomfortably atrocious.

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One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place in a courtroom, where members of the jury, the public, and the defendants all sound their wildly conflicting opinions about Baartman’s life decisions. The opinions, though logically sound from each individuals’ point of view, flail wildly in the grand scheme; the scene offers fascinting insight into “civilized” Western thinking at that time.

Black Venus is riddled with portrayals of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and alcoholism — but it is emotional abuse and its many offshoots, into depression, helplessness, apathy, and the like, which weigh the heaviest. And just when circumstances seem as though they can get no worse, they always do.

Black Venus is a 159-minute downwards spiral of shame, and it is raw, sparing viewers none of the brutality found in Baartman’s life. One feels her shame as she performs for groups of people who treat her like a circus animal, understands her destitution when she begins to prostitute, sympathesizes when her body is callously used to satisfy scientific curiosity. As a piece of fiction, Black Venus might be painful enough to watch, but as a work of historical dramatization, it is gripping and unsettling in its jaw-dropping, stomach-churning qualities.

Seen at Seattle International Film Festival 2011

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Vivian Hua is the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE magazine, as well as a master of globetrotting for free and evading traditional 9-to-5 work schedules. She enjoys observing human idiosyncrasies perhaps more than anything and is a magnet for homeless people (a joy) and bug bites of all types (absolutely terrible). Marshmallows – while not really food – are one of her favorite foods, especially if they are freezered, stale, or fire-toasted. She doesn’t want to space travel, really, which is an unpopular view these days. Her design work, astrological chart, and other crap can be seen at www.inallthings-patterns.net.

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