Sheer misery. These are the first words that come up in my mind after leaving the projection of French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus. Such a poetic title could be perceived as ill-fitted for such a harsh and real film, about the true story of Saartjie Baartman, a South African native belonging to the Khoisan ethnic group.
Saartjie was one of the many slaves used and exhibited through freak shows in England and in France in the 19th century by slave master Hendrick Caezar. The film follows the main character’s five remaining years through life. First performing a simple exhibition act before the rough English lower-class masses, then embarking on slippery psychologically-damaging roads leading to the disturbing realities of slavery inside the decadent and shabby surroundings of the refined higher spheres of the French court, and finally into the cold-hearted atmosphere and preoccupations of the scientific intelligentsia.
One might find hard to believe that themes such as art, intelligence, or the perception of beauty could possibly be mentioned. Yet, this movie is filled with contradictions. Evidently, it reveals under an aggressive spotlight the true nature of ignorance with the behavior of high and low-class population, as well as the intellectual and emotional superiority of a woman who tries to draw a line between her performance as the “Hottentot Venus” and her true personality of a sensitive, gentle and well-mannered human being.
Like Venus, Saartjie is creative: she sings, dances and plays an instrument. However, she is nonetheless perceived as an animal. So how can she keep on clinging to her humanity when she is constantly being reduced to the state of a beast? Especially when the only person who used to treat her with a certain amount of decency slowly blurs this line and mixes the persona and personality of Saartjie. This person being Hendrick Caezar, former farmer with modest revenues, seizing the opportunity to make some money with Saartje’s physical features.
On several occasions however , the real nature of art and aesthetic sensibility remains questioned. For instance, during Saartjie’s encounter with a French artist who is asked to draw the Black Venus for the Royal Academy of Medicine; unlike most of his fellow companions, he has the ability to put aside most of the moral prejudices of his time only to focus on the true essence of her beauty, unleashing her cry for human recognition through a dignified representation of her uncommon attributes.
Unfortunately, this sole act of kindness is not enough to brighten this tragic tale. Let it be said : this is no feel good movie of the year produced by Oprah Winfrey. Saartjie Baartman’s endless descent through the various circles of hell will not be overcompensated by a melodramatic orchestra or an improbable happy ending. And yet this is such a true depiction of life as a slave, who can deny the importance of such a film not only artistically but for the sake of humanity.
The sight of Saartjie’s humiliation reveals ambivalent feelings and forces the viewer to question himself about his own humanity. The real contradiction here is that one is so moved and infuriated with the other characters’ insensitivity that the only thing one can hope for her is death. Because as inhumane as it may sound, this is the cold hard truth : the only way for her to be at peace with humanity is to leave humanity. Since being humane can be defined as being compassionate and merciful, is it possible that in order to act so we must be lucid and understand the moral obstacles of the era or must we always comply with an idealistic and optimistic vision of existence and want her to fight for her right to live? I’ll leave it up to you for an answer.
Writer: Ingrid Granarolo
Location: Paris, France
A French Communications student obsessed with weirdos and soy milk. When not looking for Waldo, Ingrid enjoys combining her love for the arts with deadpan comments filled with tacky pop culture references.