BLACK VENUS: THE DISTURBING AND OVERWHELMING VENUS OF KECHICHE

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« Black Venus » is a movie directed by Franco-Tunisian Abdellatif kechiche released on French screens on October 27, 2010. Following the tragic journey of Saartjie Baartman, the director of « L’Esquive » delivers a movie with telluric force.

The first sequence of Black Venus taken from a true story in the South African history gives the measure of the violence and the telluric force of Abdellatif Kechiche’s movie. In an amphitheater, a man exhibits the sex of a woman to other men. This pornographic gesture is the work of a figure in the French pantheon, the naturalist Georges Cuvier (François Marthouret). He shows the genitals he detached from a female corpse. The harsh light that floods the amphitheater underlines the obscenity of the zoological vocabulary applied to a human being.
Abdellatif Kechiche is about to tell the story of the being who inhabited this corpse, the « Hottentot Venus ». Originally from the colony of Cape Town, now a province of South Africa, Saartjie Baartman, a young woman of Khoisan ethnicity, was exhibited in Europe from 1810 until her death in 1815, in Paris. The cast of her corpse was exhibited at the Museum of Man, in Paris, until 1974.

Effigy, in the literal sense of the term, of the condition in which the West held the part of humanity it considered inferior, Saartjie Baartman became, after the fall of the apartheid regime, a symbol for Africa of the new South (Nelson Mandela) who requested and obtained the restitution of her remains.

Black Venus recounts the last five years of this miserable odyssey. Kechiche proceeds in large blocks of narration. At the risk of discomfort, each sequence goes to the end of the acts and impulses of the characters. This is the best way to untangle the web of racism, fantasies, greed, which made the fate of Saartjie Baartman. The anger which animates this terrible film does not prevent lucidity. First, that of Kechiche, who extracts from this shattered fate a very clear vision of the moment when the relationship of the colonial powers to the rest of the world was formed. The virulence of the speech does not prevent the viewer’s lucidity. It is one of the most singular features of this film to constantly (and bluntly) question the place of the latter.

After the scientific exhibition, Kechiche goes back five years, to -Piccadilly, where the Hottentot Venus is shown in a fairground establishment. This sequence unfolds the entire show edited for the popular London audience. Caezar (Andre Jacobs), an Afrikaner who came from Cape Town with Saartjie, passes her off as a semi-wild creature. Kechiche films with attention the resignation sometimes crossed by anger of the young woman, the forced spirit of Caezar and the reactions of the crowd.

Instead of proceeding in brief shots, which would constitute a gallery of trognes, Kechiche and his operators (Lubomir Bakchev and Sofian El Fani) linger long enough to distinguish the compassionate and the voyeurs, the shocked and the frightened.

Next will be the audiences of a courtroom (when a London anti-slavery society calls for the show to be banned), a Parisian cabaret, a libertine salon, the Natural History Museum (where Saartjie Baartman was examined during her lifetime by Cuvier). At each station, questions accumulate: is it enough to see and be indignant to pay off your debt to the victim you are showing? Can this scientific alibi pornography born around the physical attributes of the young woman be shown without disturbing?

The characters around him do not inspire much sympathy, with the possible exception of Caezar. The South African comedian Andre Jacobs makes him a devious horse dealer but not devoid of sensitivity. His successor, the French Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) is a pimp without conscience who delivers poor Venus to the libido of the French aristocracy.

Finally, the last station of this path leads Saartjie Baartman under the gaze of scientists. This is where the greatest damage is done, in this « objective » determination of the hierarchy between humans. François Marthouret, intense, monomaniac, composes a mad scientist by dint of distorted reasoning. And the resistance that the young woman opposes to him makes hear, very weak, very tenuous, the way of reason.

Sandrine NDOUMBE

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