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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.