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Black Venus: A study in exploitation

"Black Venus" screens twice in the 15th Annual European Union Film Festival: Saturday, March 3, 2:15 pm; Tuesday, March 6, 7:30 pm. At the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 North State Street, Chicago. Admission: $11; $7 students. (312) 846-2600. In English, French, Afrikaans, Dutch, with English subtitles.

"Black Venus" trailer:

Unsubtitled two-minute scene from "Black Venus" of George Cuvier conducting an examination of Sarah Baartman.

"Black Venus" is a thought-provoking biopic about a Saartjie Baartman (Yahima Torres), a Khoikoi woman brought from Cape Town to London in 1810 by Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs). At 225 Piccadilly "The Hottentot Venus" is put on display wearing a loincloth, a skin-tight, skin-colored garment and a collar. The showman wielding a little whip and yanking her leash dares patrons to touch her protuberant buttocks. Her savage snarls are part of the act.

A September 20, 1810 ad in London's Morning Post for this "most correct and perfect Specimen" claimed: "She has been seen by the principal Literati in this Metropolis, who were all greatly astonished, as well as highly gratified, with the sight of so wonderful a specimen of the human race." Three abolitionists from the African Institution who attended this two-shilling sideshow swore an October 17th affidavit testifying to the "unhappy and dejected countenance of the said female" and charged that she "is deprived of her liberty" by her "Exhibitor." On October 28 The Examiner ran a letter signed "Humanitas" questioning Caezar's claim that "the Hottentot... is as free as the English": "Yes, she has a right to exhibit herself, but there is no right in her being exhibited." The Hottentot Venus, along with an Irish Giant and a Polish Dwarf, are "all masters and directors of their own movements," but "Humanitas" doubted Baartman got her cut at the box office.

Born in Tunisia and based in France, writer-director Abedallatif Kechiche ("The Secret of the Grain") drew on historical records to make "Black Venus" a period piece redolent with up-to-date issues about exploitive entertainment. He relates Baartman's appearance in a London court proceeding where she asserts her status as a free artist. (Writer Suzan-Lori Parks portrayed her that way too in "Venus," her play directed by Richard Foreman in 1996, the same year Spike Lee directed "Girl 6," Parks' screenplay about an African-American who performs phone sex.)

The real Baartman, who stood only four-and-a-half feet tall, apparently did sing, dance and and play a one-string instrument with a bow in taverns and shebeens of Cape Town. In England, at least as seen in this film, her artistry is received as freakish.

Supposedly his former servant, and never a slave, Baartman has a contract with Caezar, who sells her, in a sense, to a showman named Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), who tours with a live bear act. Réaux starts exhibiting Baartman in Paris. (Apparently, she shared billing with a captive rhinocerous at 188 rue Saint-Honore.) Now she wears a red-colored body suit and her prop leash is upgraded to a gold chain. She performs in fancy circles. She is invited to make an appearance at a society wedding. A contemporary cartoon showed a gent marveling at her bare behind and exclaiming: "Oh, goddam, what roast beef!" A 14-scene satiric operetta titled "The Hottentot Venus, of Hatred of French Women" ran for 13 months.

Whatever dignity Baartman acquires as an artiste is lost when her new handler urges libertines to touch her elongated labia. She endures a different kind of scrutiny when famed catastrophist and comparative anatomist George Cuvier (François Marthouret) and his team measure her for science in 1814. Her Camper's facial angle is 71 degrees. One areola is four inches in diameter, the other is three. Although she will not show her genitals, Cuvier will dissect them, and her brain, and preserve them in jars for display after she dies a year later. He published his observations in "The Natural History of Mammals."

"Black Venus" ends with a tragic decline, like many a narrative of an artist. Baartman's drinking only gets worse. She works as a prostitute and dies of a venereal disease. After years of display in a Paris museum, she finally went home in 2002. The end credits contain news footage, and likely clips from Zola Maseko's documentary "The Return of Sara Baartman," a follow-up to his "The Life and Times of Sara Baartman" (1998). "She was a prisoner of other people's beliefs," states Kechiche in his press notes for Black Venus."

Cuvier's scrupulous documenting Baartman yielded numerous drawings of her particulars. "I was incredibly moved by her face. It speaks more about her than anything I have read," notes Kechiche. He may ask too much Yahima Torres' face to convey all that she does not say on screen. So much more is expressed by the faces of her English and French spectators. These close-ups add up to a cabinet of curiosities. Except what Kechiche is offering for view is less an African body than a European reverse shot of reactions: astonishment, disgust, hilarity, outrage and perverse titillation.

One aspect of Kechiche's design irked critic Nigel Andrews from the Financial Times, reporting from the Venice Film Festival last September: "'Black Venus' is definitely overlong at 160 minutes. 'We get it, we get it!' we want to say... We feel harangued." [The version screening in the European Union Film Festival is 164 minutes. ]

Two scenes are indeed distinctive for their unusual length: an early, rowdy performance in London that may come close to the original duration of Baartman's show; and later, a more erotic turn in a decadent Paris salon. Split into two scenes that bookend the film, Cuvier's presentation of the posthumous Baartman to his colleagues is not lengthy, but when combined with the scene in between of his three-day examination of the living Baartman, we get a prolonged exposure to the scientific gaze.

"Black Venus" envisions a charged encounter that occurred in an imperial era. There was pornography without photography and cinema. Kechiche risks committing one kind of obscenity on screen in order to alert early 21st century spectators to its early 19th-century original on stages.

Bill Stamets is a freelance reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times and Newcity, who also teaches film part-time at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Columbia College Chicago.

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