By the time this post is published, Milton should have a full-blown monster cold. It does not help his condition that we have been attending New York Film Festival screenings almost every night of the week, but there was no way he was going to miss Black Venus, a film from France directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. Albee and I had seen Kechiche’s last film, The Secret of the Grain, which was lengthy, frustrating, depressing and since the grain in the title was cous cous, which always looked delectable, we left the theater ravenous. Someone could have salted our armrests and we would have devoured those. Instead, we settled for burgers.
Black Venus, a historic drama based on Saartjie Baartman, a woman who lived in the early 19th century, has a 159-minute runtime. When Village Voice film critic and member of the NYFF selection committee, Melissa Anderson, introduced it, she referred to the performance by Yahima Torres as “astonishing.” I groaned in Milton’s one unclogged ear, “Hyperbole.” Milton, clutching two fistfuls of tissues, and possibly a roll of toilet paper he absconded from the men’s room, muttered, “This better be good or I’ll be snoring fast.”
As with The Secret of the Grain, Black Venus is also lengthy, frustrating and depressing, but where it differs from Kechiche’s earlier film is that it’s excellent. Not only was it excellent, “Mortimer Snerd” (Milton’s name for Melissa Anderson) knew what she was talking about in her introduction. She earned our respect. Yahima Torres was brilliant. Torres can convey more while silently smoking a cigarette than Hillary Swank babbling eight pages of dialogue.
Saartjie Baartman was a tragically exploited slave from Cape Town, South Africa who traveled to Europe in 1810 with her owner where she became infamously known as the “Hottentot Venus.” This was due to her enlarged buttocks and elongated labia. Her unusual anatomy fascinated white people. Saartjie’s owner forced her to perform in freak shows in London and later, Paris. In their act, she is shackled and introduced huddled inside a cage. He constantly cracks a whip and orders her to perform a salacious dance, and it gets worse … The on-screen voyeurs watch in sheer delight, while the off-screen viewer cringes in horror. The film relentlessly pummels the viewer with this woman’s degradation.
She’s lonely and miserable, with no friends or family and trapped in a country where she cannot speak much English or French. As she struggles to maintain her dignity, she tries to drown her pain with alcohol. In a deeply moving scene where a French journalist interviews her in a carriage, she recalls the life she had before coming to Europe. Emotionally, Black Venus is a devastating portrait of racism, sexism, and abuse, but there’s a “happy” coda at the end. Oddly, it almost brought me to tears.
During the Q&A with Torres and Anderson, a young African American woman detonated. She ached to give director Kechiche, who was not in attendance, a piece of her mind about how much this film offended her. She took her anger out on Torres, but before Torres could respond, a middle aged African American woman sitting behind us, shot out of her seat and begged Anderson to let her have a say. Anderson ordered both audience members to pipe down. Torres delivered her defense of both her character and the film which did not satisfy her detractor in the least. She wanted a fight, and spoke over Torres. Anderson, to her credit, lashed out at the detractor, “You’re being rude! Let her finish speaking!” When Torres finished, the detractor was eager to regain the floor, but Anderson gave the go ahead to the woman behind us to have her say. She articulately defended the film, explained why it so resonated with her, and praised Torres’s performance.
The audience enthusiastically applauded her remarks.
Anderson decided to close the Q&A there; so I did not get to ask my two-part question, does it have a distributor yet and when will it be released over here? I hope soon, but it is very controversial. As Milton pointed out, “People are going to bring a lot of their own baggage to this one.” As we left, he added, “That was so good, I forgot I have a cold.” He continued, “I feel like we just saw the black version of Breaking the Waves.”