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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.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”


Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”


But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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Draught Pick

Sam Adams “Keeps It Brockmire”

All New Brockmire airs Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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From baseball to beer, Jim Brockmire calls ’em like he sees ’em.

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It’s no wonder at all, then, that Sam Adams would reach out to Brockmire to be their shockingly-honest (and inevitably short-term) new spokesperson. Unscripted and unrestrained, he’ll talk straight about Sam—and we’ll take his word. Check out this new testimonial for proof:

See more Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC, presented by Samuel Adams. Good f***** beer.

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