Black Venus

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released from Arrow and the films on them.

Moderator: MichaelB

Post Reply
Message
Author
User avatar
Brian C
Joined: Wed Sep 16, 2009 11:58 am
Location: Chicago, IL

Re: The Films of 2012

#1 Post by Brian C » Sat Mar 03, 2012 11:14 pm

Black Venus (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Kechiche's followup to The Secret of the Grain explores the story of Sarah Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus" of 19th-century London and Paris sideshow infamy. As far as I can tell, it's still without proper US distribution and may never find it, since it's a lengthy (164 minutes) and bracingly confrontational film. Still, it's often fascinating, especially during the first half, and I think it's a big step up from Kechiche's previous film.

The film spares none of the horrific details of Baartman's circumstances, although it's more complex than a simple condemnation of her masters and audiences. I don't think it ever comes close to endorsing or justifying her exploitation, but I think it makes it fairly clear that a person of her race and social standing would have had few if any good options in either South Africa or Europe at the time. Her master in London tells her that she would have been destined to live her live as a servant in Cape Town, but at least has a chance to earn money for her own personal advancement by participating in the shows. Modern audiences are sure to see how implausible it is that she'll accrue the benefits he promises, but I think it's also possible to see how she would have believed it, or at least would have wanted to given her disheartening alternatives even if she was to return home.

Kechiche turns that empathy on its ear, though, during a trial brought by British abolitionist do-gooders in attempt to free her, in which a supposedly sympathetic court audience turns its hostility toward Sarah as soon as her testimony deviates from what she wants to hear. Again, I think what the movie does here is fairly unique, telling the story from a modern perspective but not forgetting that social norms and moral perspectives were much different then, and her would-be saviors are not given the heroic treatment by the film that we might expect. Another example of this is the film's different treatment of Sarah's audiences; I think it goes much easier on the working-class people of London, who can't help but being overwhelmed by the exoticism of the specacle, than it does on the wealthy, libertine Parisian audiences, who become immediately bored with Sarah when they notice that she's not enjoying herself like they are. There's also a wickedly satiricial interlude when Sarah is examined by a team of scientists.

Looming over the film's examination of exploitation, of course, is Yahima Torres, the actress who plays Sarah. The film reconstructs Sarah's performances in agonizing detail, and Torres is subjected to much of the same humiliation that Sarah was, although I assume that Torres's environment was surely inherently more controlled and supportive than Sarah's. One might say that Torres is playing the role voluntarily, although the film doesn't really dispute that Sarah voluntarily consented to leave her home in South Africa, either. Of course Sarah most likely had no idea what lay in store for her in Europe, but Torres is a first-time film actress, and it's easy to imagine that Torres was unprepared for the impact of playing such a demanding role. She may say now that it was a rewarding experience, but if the film's commercial success is at stake, would she feel pressure to put a positive spin on it, like Sarah does in the film? To what degree are we, as the film's audience, culpable in the exploitation of Torres, regardless of how voluntary her participation is? I don't really know the answers to these questions, but while I think there's a danger of making false equivalences between the two women's circumstances, it's hard for me not to draw parallels between them. If nothing else, it frankly makes the semi-controversial issue here in the US of black actresses playing maids in The Help look a little petty and ridiculous.

Unfortunately, I think the film loses its distinct character during the last act, as Sarah's fortunes take a turn for the worse - no matter how bad things are they can always get worse, I guess - and the film becomes a document of her decline into prostitution and ill health. This feels like much more familiar territory. I momentarily thought the movie was flirting with the idea that outright prostitution was a relief for Sarah from the carnival circuit, which might have been a provocative critique of the situation, but I'm not really sure that's the case. It's a disappointingly conventional denouement for a movie that otherwise takes a challenging approach to a very difficult subject.

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: The Films of 2012

#2 Post by zedz » Wed Mar 07, 2012 3:53 pm

Brian C wrote:Black Venus (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Great assessment of a very striking film, Brian. I think it made my top 10 of last year (or if not was lurking just outside). As you say, it's an extremely confrontational film, and I can't imagine who they thought might be the audience for it, but in the plus column it does indeed grab hold of some very meaty issues with its teeth and refuses to let go or try to make them artificially palatable. I still feel like Kechiche has a certain clunkiness as a film stylist, but he bulldozes through that in this film with the sheer nerve of his approach to the subject matter.

The denouement is indeed more conventionally despairing, but that seems to be in line with the historical record. I'm much more troubled by the film's modern-day coda, which is awkward enough as
SpoilerShow
mildly upbeat onscreen text, but is frankly disastrously bathetic as repurposed news footage. In the face of the brutal facts of the case, this purely symbolic 'homecoming' seems like very small potatoes, and to me it seems almost offensive to try and twist it into a last-minute feel-good-ism.
The 'exploitation' issue is something that Kechiche seems to be working with very deliberately and conscientiously, and I think the moral question is answered by the fact that Torres delivers such a superb performance, and by the fact that our sympathy for her is never in doubt - which is indeed why watching the film is such an uncomfortable experience: it's very rare that we as an audience are so close to a character that goes through all of this, on screen. Torres isn't being objectified, she's being subjectified.

User avatar
Brian C
Joined: Wed Sep 16, 2009 11:58 am
Location: Chicago, IL

Re: The Films of 2012

#3 Post by Brian C » Wed Mar 07, 2012 11:40 pm

zedz wrote:I'm much more troubled by the film's modern-day coda, which is awkward enough as
SpoilerShow
mildly upbeat onscreen text, but is frankly disastrously bathetic as repurposed news footage. In the face of the brutal facts of the case, this purely symbolic 'homecoming' seems like very small potatoes, and to me it seems almost offensive to try and twist it into a last-minute feel-good-ism.
Yikes, you're right, and to be honest I had already completely forgotten about that or I would have mentioned it! Guess I had blocked it out. I think some text may have been OK, with sort of a "FYI this happened" tone, but I have to agree that Kechiche handled it very poorly.

User avatar
colinr0380
Joined: Mon Nov 08, 2004 4:30 pm
Location: Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire, UK

Black Venus

#4 Post by colinr0380 » Sat May 12, 2018 8:57 am

Image
Arrow Video wrote:Between Couscous, winner of three César Awards, and the Cannes triumph of Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche made Black Venus, a stark portrait of the life of Saartjie Baartman, also known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’.

Baartman was taken from South African home as a 21-year-old and shipped to Georgian London, where she would be caged and exhibited as a freak show. Presented semi-nude, her physique – especially her large buttocks – was the source of much curiosity. But as her ‘fame’ spread, so too did her exploitation…

Centred on a remarkable performance by Cuban actor Yahima Torres as Baartman, Black Venus provides a bleak but barbed exploration of sex, science, race, colonialism and social attitudes.

Release date: 21/05/2018

Production Year: 2010 | Region Code: B | UK Rating: 15 | Running Time: 162 mins | Number of Discs: 1 | Language: French / English | Subtitles: English | Audio: 5.1 / 2.0 | Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 | Colour: Colour
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
Optional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks
Optional English subtitles
Brand-new appreciation of Black Venus and the cinema of Abdellatif Kechiche by critic Neil Young
Theatrical trailer
Reversible sleeve featuring and original newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Will Higbee, author of Post-Beur Cinema: North African Émigré and Maghrebi-French Filmmaking in France Since 2000
Trailer

greggster59
Joined: Mon Sep 25, 2006 1:37 pm

Re: Black Venus

#5 Post by greggster59 » Sat May 12, 2018 9:47 am

The trailer suggests there are quite a few parallel's between Black Venus and Lynch's Elephant Man with regards to the treatment of it's subject by society.

Post Reply