Simultaneously reveling in, and critiquing, sexualized racist exploitation, Black Venus generates minor friction from its two-facedness, if not nearly enough to overshadow its prime goal of punishing the audience. Writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche’s follow-up to The Secret of the Grain tells the true-life tale of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (Yahima Torres), aka the “Hottentot Venus,” a South African slave who in the early 19th century became a European sensation by starring in revolting London and Paris shows as an exotic, animalistic dark-continent freak. Kechiche opens after Saartjie’s death with a doctor – aided by a wax sculpture of the woman as well as her genitals, which are passed around in a glass jar – discussing Saartjie’s uniquely protruding vaginal “apron.” Thus from the outset Saartjie is reduced to a bizarre genetic anomaly, setting the stage for the ensuing flashback account of her life, in which Jean-Christophe Bouvet and Olivier Gourmet’s cretins force her into a life of humiliating performance, growling from a cage or on a leash at white audience members who were granted the opportunity at show’s end to touch her gigantic ass. Saartjie’s rump-shaking dance routines cannily recall modern hip-hop vixens’ moves, and Kechiche’s panoramas of grim misery have a detail-oriented meticulousness. Still, the filmmaker’s argument about xenophobic degradation is made after the first prolonged sequence of Saartjie’s act; the many subsequent ones, which bloat the runtime to an excessive 159 minutes, offer (like Torres’ one-note turn) no greater insight, instead merely bludgeoning home the same points while making the sexual nature of her disgrace more prominent, culminating with an explicit dildo-centric orgy. Kechiche’s distended staging of these events is clearly aimed at implicating us, the viewers, as complicit voyeurs responsible for the crimes, even as the director’s own role in orchestrating them for cinematic view incriminates him as well. It’s an undercurrent that, for a short time, intriguingly butts up against the story’s damnation of Saartjie’s subjugation. Yet Black Venus’ exhaustive, exhausting repetitiveness ultimately negates its critique, the film indulging in the very nastiness it derides with such gusto, and to such unnecessarily protracted lengths, that the effect is like being screamed at, about the same solitary subject, for two-and-a-half hours.
2010 New York Film Festival