Abdellatif Kechiche's 'Black Venus' isn't interested in suspense. The film begins with its eponymous subject dead and her vagina preserved in a jar - a doctor presenting it proudly to his colleagues - and is quite upfront about the fact that it's going to be an usually experiential biopic, one that doesn't want to share its story with you so much as it wants you to endure it. The year is 1810, and the Venus Hottentot (aka the Black Venus) is London's latest attraction. A supposed bush-woman stolen from the jungles of Africa and presented to leering audiences in a cage by showman Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs), the Venus Hottentot is King Kong before the beast was born into metaphor, and she's one of 19th century's most tragic figures. She's also Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman with a distended labia and an unusually large backside whose body is a source of prurient, colonialist fascination to self-interested Europeans of all stripes.
From the smut-peddlers who exploit Baartman for a living to the hedonistic nobles who see her as an erotic curio to the doctors who wish to use her as proof of their bogus phrenology, everyone wants a piece. Everyone wants to claim her as their own. As to why Baartman was complicit in the degrading show that first brought her such attention, Kechiche is just as curious as we are, and over the course of 166 riveting minutes he unflinchingly depicts his version of Baartman's final years like a witness as compelled, removed, and responsible as any who were there.
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Baartman is embodied by Yahima Torres, and her performance is something of a one-note miracle. Torres is a native Cuban who seven years ago moved to France to teach Spanish, but after an incidental street encounter with Kechiche one afternoon she was forever lodged in the back of the filmmaker's mind as his Black Venus. Beyond the forthright moments that frame the film, Torres is in every scene, wearing the same tough and hampered expression throughout and never once cracking a smile (it's a rare film where the protagonist never smiles). Torres dissolves into Baartman in much the same way that Baartman submitted herself to the Black Venus charade - Kechiche doesn't require the actress to emote so much as he calls upon her to be gawked at and co-opted, demanding a sort of primal bravery that's almost impossible to find in professional actors.
The lazy and racially reductive comparison is to Gabourey Sidibe in 'Precious,' but Torres isn't afforded the luxury of triumph, and Kechiche steadfastly sticks to his guns, refusing to betray his subject by having her warm up and become more pleasantly relatable to modern audiences. So while viewers are endowed with 200 years of hindsight and the understanding that all races are equally human, Torres' closed performance narrows that gap considerably. So while we watch the first Hottentot masquerade in horror and pity, the distance at which Torres keeps us from Baartman whittles away at our automatic sympathies, and by the time we see her performing on the precipice of an orgy, we're craning our necks for a look at the goods along with everyone else.
And it's that process - that slow slide down the moral ladder - that justifies the film's lengthy (but brisk) running time and repetitive structure. First in England and then later in Paris, we see Baartman perform in an array of different venues, and Kechiche delights in suffocating our pity. But just because 'Black Venus' is confrontational doesn't mean it has to be ugly, and Kechiche and his crew have overcome a tight budget to conjure a rich and believably unromantic 19th century Europe. It works a lot like 'Mad Men,' with exteriors used sparingly and to maximum effect. One believably detailed shot of the alley outside of the Caezar's theater is relied upon to give a sense of place, and the immaculately ragged costumes do the rest. It's a film dominated by unforgiving close-ups - lush, penetrating HD cinematography imbues Kechiche's frames with a rare immediacy, and the exploitative sweat that pools on the faces of his male characters contributes to the feeling - for better or worse - that the luridly sad pageants of the Venus Hottentot are happening live before you.
And it's the men who are both her cage and key. She was a slave for Caezar in South Africa and a wet nurse for his children, and it's likely that he didn't offer Baartman much of a choice when he decided to drag her to Europe and repackage her as a freak. Andre Jacobs infuses Caezar with a raw and unbalanced charisma, and when he reminds Baartman that "Money equals freedom" his words take on a disconcertingly reassuring tone. If he never comes across as a saint he definitely exudes enough tenderness towards his cash cow for the subtle sinews of their relationship to take hold. Jacobs walks a fine line, seeming to have both contempt and concern for his Khoikhoi muse, and that balance results in a palpably uneasy dynamic as he goads her to dance, roar, and bite at their audiences. Olivier Gourmet - a staple of the Dardenne brothers and one of the greatest actors alive - eventually shows up to deliver yet another fearlessly physical performance as a showman with a more salacious take on the Venus Hottentot, and is another man under the thrall of his own ambitions, with designs of packaging Baartman as something she's not.
As viewers we see the selfish particulars of Gourmet's character, but the indelibe power of Kechiche's film is that his unrelenting focus on Baartman assures that we feel those transgressions from her perspective. And it's on this count that 'Black Venus' becomes something of a counterpoint to 'The Social Network,' as both films concern the extent to which ambition can blind people from its effects on others. The Fincher film is a detached mosaic that forbids viewers from identifying too closely with only one character, but 'Black Venus' inextricably tethers the audience to its victim, the unassuming woman who has so much to give to the men around her, all of whom care for her not one iota beyond the point at which their concern is no longer profitable. On the flip side, of course, that approach invokes a masochistic element, and it often feels as if Kechiche seeks our complicity above all else, treating his audience like dogs that need to have their noses rubbed in the collective failings of our species. Kechiche is playing with fire here - people simply don't go to the movies to feel like monstrous assholes - but 'Black Venus' eventually becomes so casually mired in its own misfortune, that the ultimate effect is that of numbness, with the sober and abrupt final moments leaving the audience angry, exhausted, and overwhelmed by disbelief. But when the guilt dissipates - and it will - grace, tolerance, and an empowering sense of our own agency remain.