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Seattle Film Fest 2011: “Black Venus,” Reviewed

Seattle Film Fest 2011: “Black Venus,” Reviewed (photo)

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Words like “punishing” and “challenging” have been following around Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Black Venus” ever since it premiered at the Venice and New York Film Festivals last year, adjectives that could be considered misleading when the film’s greatest flaw is it’s too simple. The true story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, an African woman exploited for her shapely figure by freak shows in Europe and coveted by perverts and scientists alike in 1815 for an unusually elongated labia, it offers the chance for Kechiche to apply the largely observational, unemotional style that he employed for the 2008 modern masterpiece “The Secret of the Grain” in a historical context.

Whereas “The Secret of the Grain” was full of rich characters we would come to know throughout its course, “Black Venus” features just two varieties: black and white, not only in the color of their skin, but in their behavior as the film is populated only by the Europeans who seek to exploit Saartjie (Yahima Torres), the exotic foreign export whose gradual acceptance of being exploited makes her an inconvenient martyr. For the audience, she is also a mostly unsympathetic one as she downs alcohol nearly nonstop to dull her senses and wears a blank expression, save for the occasional tear that rolls down her cheek.

“I’m not a harlot,” she says plainly to Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs), the man who takes her from Cape Town and convinces her she would make money by dancing and showing a little skin. But by the time we see the act in London, Saaterje is growling from a wooden cage to the delight of audiences who excitedly rush the stage when Caezar encourages them to feel her considerable derriere. A woman of limited intellect, even she knows this is the beginning of a slippery slope and in subsequent performances, mopes around the stage like a sad elephant, which feels only natural when she’s treated literally like a caged animal.

05272011_BlackVenus2.jpgAs “Black Venus” progresses, Saartjie seems resigned to such conditions, drifting off the stage to perform in front of common folk to the kinky private parties of the French bourgeoisie and eventually into the laboratories of Paris Royal Academy of Medicine where she’s poked, prodded and sketched, with her last bits of dignity being stripped away alongside the few skimpy bits of clothing she’s been able to cling onto. It’s Kechiche’s great strength that he doesn’t insist on the audience’s empathy, allowing the accumulation of small compromises, if they can even be called that in Saartjie’s dire situation, to pile up towards a tragic conclusion that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative. However, as a dramatic narrative, “Black Venus” never entirely adds up, existing like its main protagonist as an object of intrigue resigned not to speak up for itself.

Yet it is also not a film to be written off, either because its bleak nature or its refusal to engage in the traditional comforts often employed to let the audience for such films as these breathe. There are people who come to Saartjie’s aid — an all-white contingency from the African Institution of England bring her first manager Caezar in front of the courts and she’s shown some kindness by the assistant (Elina Löwensohn) of her second (Olivier Gourmet) – but their limited attempts at help only illuminate the horrors of the society around her at which she can only stare in frustration. A stoic Torres, who is making her feature debut, says few words throughout “Black Venus”‘s two-and-a-half-hour running time, but remains enough of an enigma to keep the film compelling, even when its only direction is a downward spiral.

For Kechiche, “Black Venus” may be a better example of running in place, a film that though immaculately designed from its muted color palette to its grand sets doesn’t feel as though it’s doing much of anything but recounting a painful history that for most would be best left in the past. One could argue its cycle of degradation gets old quickly — charges that the exploitation of Saartjie (and the actress playing her) extend beyond the story to the filmmakers have been leveled by some — but that would ignore the cycle of far more interest to Kechiche of not letting history repeat itself. That he succeeds even partially makes it worthwhile viewing.

“Black Venus” currently does not have distribution in the U.S. It will play at the Seattle Film Festival once more on May 29th.


Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at


Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…