Oct 11, 2010

NYFF: Black Venus

This movie by French Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche deals with the story of Sartjie Baartman, a South African woman who in the 19th Century was known in Europe as the Hottentot Venus, and was paraded around like a carny in a freak show in Paris and London, in a downward spiral of human debasement until she died of venereal disease and her exceptional body was sold to science.
She was a big woman, with a very big behind and unusually large genitalia. She performed in a cage and pretended to be a "savage" although she spoke Afrikaans and drank to drown her terrible sorrows. It wasn't only until 2002 that her remains, which had been surgically severed by science, were repatriated so the pieces that remained of her could be buried in her native land.
There is a kind of movie that looks to provoke outrage and to denounce unsavory episodes of human behavior, by painstakingly and morbidly recreating that which it is denouncing. I remember being offended by Hector Babenco's Pixote, a movie about a poor little boy in the slums of Rio. Babenco found an actual street urchin from the slums and had him act in the movie in scenes that were not fit for a child to participate in, let alone watch. Then, after his 15 minutes of fame, the boy was dumped and forgotten in the slums where he was found, having been exploited for entertainment, by a movie that purported to condemn exploitation. Similar to Black Venus in its repudiation of the human tendency for morbid ogling, is Michael Haneke's Funny Games. In this movie, Haneke expresses his outrage is by showing the audience unendurable cruelty and violence and then chastises us for sticking around to watch. I find these films both morally superior and repulsive, as they are intended to punish the audience for having the curiosity to look (without knowing that all we are going to be shown is debasement), and for supposedly taking a stand against exploitation by using utterly exploitative means. I am furious with myself for not having stormed out of Black Venus at the first of many instances where I thought I could not take the humiliation and the debasement of the main character any longer. And if I foolishly stayed, a question I'm still pondering why, I hope it's because I wanted to know how it would all end. Every time I was about to hit the exit, the director cut to a new scene that promised perhaps an end in sight, and then the humiliation would be even more obscene. I think one sticks around to see if finally this woman will stand up for herself, but she never does.
Black Venus is a squalid movie. I am sure that the filmmakers are convinced it's quite the opposite. That they are broaching the subject of the oppression of women and of black people and white racism and somehow they are in a chivalric quest to restore this woman's dignity. But how can they restore her dignity when they show her countless humiliations not only in repetitive and increasingly nauseating detail, but what is worse, by appropriating her persona and recreating her without giving her a full fledged dimensional character, nuance or even a logical motivation to explain why she allowed herself to be debased as she was. For this is not a documentary. Any time a fictional movie seeks to recreate the life of an actual person, we know that artistic liberties are taken in order for this person to inhabit a dramatic world, with dramatic rules.
In the case of Black Venus the increasing debasement of this woman is as offensive as the basic, one-dimensional, utterly opaque way in she is portrayed. Nobody expects her to act like Norma Rae, but why wasn't she at least furnished with a psychologically coherent set of motivations that allowed her to participate in her own abjection? The movie is so basically and clumsily written that it hints at these reasons but never makes them explicit. Thus she is portrayed as an exasperating passive aggressive, much more passive than aggressive, a desperate alcoholic, and a simpleminded person that tries to inure herself to pain. She is not given a moment of insight. We understand that she will not disrobe herself for a bunch of French scientists, but not that she allows herself to be paraded like a circus animal and worse in front of the jet set. She is stubbornly complicit in her own debasement, but the audience fails to understand why.
Yahima Torres, the brave Cuban actress who plays her, is not given much to do with a character that seems to have only one side. She does it well, this self-destructive and willful abandonment of willpower, but hasn't she been exploited as well? She has been asked to subject herself to humiliation in front of camera, crew and audience, without a whit of restraint on the part of the director. I reject movies that try to teach the audience lessons by giving the audience bitter medicine. You can be eloquently outraged at any shameful episode of human evil without using that very evil to repulse or titillate. I think they are fundamentally self-serving and dishonest. In the end, the explicitness soon becomes tiresome and instead of summoning empathy it creates rejection. What is more, one wonders if the director is not getting a kick from reorchestrating such abjection once again. And for what purpose?

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