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.