Reviews » Vénus noire
Representation and the Dominant Gaze
Abdellatif Kechiche's Black Venus is a film about Saartje Bartman, an African woman brought to Europe in the early 19th century to be exposed in popular shows as well as in aristocratic circles and whose body becomes prey of scientists even after her death. By portraying the last five years of her life, for which the colonial situation is the determinant factor, the European society appears as a barbaric undertaking.
In his film, Kechiche combines two main themes. On the one hand it is a film about a historical person, abused and oppressed during her lifetime and dehumanized and marginalized even beyond her death. One purpose of the film is to give a face to this person, Saartje Baartman. Another thread is a disquisition on the post-enlightenment European society, depicted by its behaviour towards Baartman in the varied shades of chauvinist behaviour and reactions of the agents, spectators and collaborators of dehumanization. These two themes that converge in this film have very different sets of problems and discursive implications.
A further question to be discussed here is that of the ethics of representation. Black Venus is a balancing act, which poses itself on the thin line between displaying a (historical) social reality and – by trying to depict this – reproducing its gaze, especially with the medium film which has the tendency to facilitate some kind of voyeurism.
As a historical film, which chooses a subaltern person in Gajatari Spivaks sense (for which Baartman is a sadly good example) as its main protagonist, it dares a risky undertaking. As there are hardly sources which allow us to draw conclusions about Baartman’s motivations, thoughts and feelings, it is always an act of imagination based on the assumptions, analyses and the situated knowledge of the director to create such a character. It is thus quite natural that there will be critiques – not necessarily unjustified – as for example about the representation of Baartman by a man.
The spectator hardly is able to feel out the concrete emotions and impulses of Baartman although leading actress Yahima Torres portrays her in a very perceptive way and the camera work allows us – by various close ups – to get very close to Baartman even in situations of extreme exposure as in highly intimate situations. This tension between nearness and felt aloofness might leave the spectator with a discomforting feeling. However, in my opinion this is less due to a lack of will to give a personality to Baartman than acknowledging the fact that every (over-) interpretation of her personality would again be an act of dominance. Nevertheless Baartman becomes an acting individual in several scenes, articulating her requests and claiming her rights.
This can be interpreted as a motive to give evidence in her master’s favour at court. While human rights activists claim her master Hendrick Caesar abuses her, sharing some of her own accusations of Caesar (as exposing her on stage like an animal), she declares that she does everything voluntarily. It seems that, in spite of her dependency, her wish to publically declare that she is not a slave - a role she has to play in the shows and which manifests the picture people make of her – is very essential to her self-determination.
There are three situations where she resists to what her master wants her to do. The first one is when she plays a beautiful song instead of making noise on her instrument on stage. The second is her refusal to undress completely in front of the scientists who want to take measurement of every part of her body, and the last one is the moment she just starts to cry while people are touching her entire body, including her genitals during an ‘erotic performance’. All those acts of resistance have in common that they are no more than a mere manifestation of human attributes, such as culture, shame and bodily and moral self-determination.
Another point all those resistances have in common is that their consequences are negative for Baartman, often by marking the beginning of a new phase that can be even more inconvenient for her. Either she is insulted and battered by Caesar or he sells her to her new master Reaux who doesn't know any bounds abusing her. In the last case, when she cries on stage, Reaux ceases the shows and forces her into prostitution. This apparent hopelessness leaves an extraordinarily stale aftertaste to the film. It is a film, which in part is hard to bear because of the length of several shattering situations but also because it is introduced right at the beginning that there will be no hope. The first scene begins shortly after Baartman’s death that sets no end to her dehumanization.
The ethically most debatable scenes are those where Baartman is on stage or later, when she is brought to Paris, to the French salons and brothels, scenes which show the dehumanization, abuse and rape in the most direct way with all details of her body in a situation of collective complicity of her master(s) and the audience she is exposed to.
The camera angle is chosen in a way which lets us see Baartman from the background or the side of the stage as well as from the perspective of the audience, which makes the spectator part of the voyeuristic gaze on her. Thus the feeling one gets is corresponding to at least some of the various reactions of the audience shown in the film such as a combination of horror and curiosity.
There are just few shots where we get close to Baartman’s face with an expression I would call an expressive inexpressiveness. Those short but intensive moments mark a break from the former image created of her and deconstruct the representation of Baartman as a dehumanized ‘barbarian other’. As the camera performs mainly the gaze of the 19th century audience as shown above, those conflictive glances suggest that such a prospect – of Baartman as a human being – was not unthinkable then but was just ignored by a barbarian society, perceiving itself as civilized and cultivated. This is also the reason for which Caesar, Baartman’s first master, so harshly bans her from showing her musical talents when she starts to sing a sentimental lullaby instead of making silly noises on her instrument.
There is no space for her being a cultivated person. Instead Baartman becomes the object of projection for the imagination of barbarian otherness, for sexual concupiscence as for a will of subjugation of an individual perceived as ‘barbarian other’. All those notions become visible in the reactions of the audience, especially during the show in London shown in detail at the beginning of the film. It is accompanied by exultation when she performs a ‘native dance’ or senseless exercises as jumping in a skin-tight costume, while she is laughed at and affronted (e.g. “go back to your cage, savage”) when she shall play a ‘European lady’ or an instrument (which she has to play wrong) which both is associated with civilization.
Caesar stirs up the audience’s fear, pretending her waywardness by making her attack the public or himself. At the same time he reassures them, demonstrating that he has got her under control, a feeling the public can participate in later on, when touching her body while he holds her. He even makes excuses for her ‘behaviour’, reminding the audience that “she is a genuine savage” to which a man from the public shouts “and a woman”. This sequence demonstrates the double oppression of Baartman as an African and as a woman and shows the combination of racist and misogyny in a chauvinist and patriarchal society.
Beyond that Kechiche gives a more complex image of the wide range of complicity. There are not only men but also women of all ages and social status who form part of Baartman’s tormentors. They show various kinds of attitudes from open insults and attacks on her to a semblance of pity. Those changing attitudes towards her are also evident in the person of Caesar who changes between a fatherly friend and a brutal exploiter.
There is even another, even more profound criticism of the European society which is revealed when Baartman becomes the object of ambition of French scientists. Here she is reduced to a detail of her body (her labium) which is said to be the criterion for her classification irrespective of all other aspects of her life, situation and personality.
It is the will to classify everything what Zygmunt Bauman called the mentality of a gardener (Bauman. 1989. Modernity and The Holocaust) in the post-enlightenment society. Gardening here stands for an ideology where every phenomenon has to fit into the clusters of the society (which is meant to be the garden). The classification is necessary in order to create the outline of what is considered the ‘own’ or collective self in contrast to the ‘other’ which is a foreign body and has to be excluded. Finally this mentality is a fundamental pre-condition for what Baartman has to suffer.
Another aspect Bauman considers to be an attribute of the barbarity of ‘western civilization’ is the instrumental rationality which separates an action from its (moral) consequences. And this is exactly the way, Caesar argues confronted with Baartman’s refusal to continue being exposed in the way she used to be.
His point is that they will only be successful when she plays the wild savage because this is what the audience wants her to be. He thus acts according to a perceived necessity he himself is subjected to. The culprit thus turns himself into a victim while the audience which claims to see Baartman as a savage then bears the blame. But there again it might be questioned if ordinary people who only got to see Africans as savages can be able to help it. So we are going in circles, and some of today's spectators who don't find a way out of this dilemma, might develop an understanding of their forefathers represented here.
This, in my opinion is not a matter of accusing Black Venus of being too uncritical, but evidence of its reference to actuality. The discursive strategy to legitimate inhuman or barbarian behaviour by such kind of instrumental rationality still is common today. Also the practice of ascribing 'otherness' to people to exclude them from the ‘own’ society and all qualities related to the latter is enduring ever since. In the end Kechiche doesn’t stop condemning a historical situation but holds a mirror up to ourselves. He uses the characteristic of the medium film to involve the spectator to the emotions and motives of the people represented. By not giving a satisfactory room to identify completely with the main character Baartman, it obligates us to look within ourselves. The camera angle supports to make the spectator concerned without having the possibility to stand morally outside. This, in my opinion is a special quality of the film.
Black Venus thus involves the spectator entirely. Linda Williams argues in her article on Dennis O'Rourke's documentary The Good Woman of Bangkok (Williams. 1997. The Ethics of Documentary Invention), that it is justifiable to use a dominant gaze in order to depict a reality beyond it which has to be revealed. What Williams discusses concerning the ethical question in documentary film is picked up by Kechice in terms of feature film. It holds the contradictory notions of representation and doination without claiming to solve all of them, which makes it a valuable document of colonial history without loosing the prospect to the present.
Bauman, Zygmunt.1989. Modernity and The Holocaust. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Evidence. Jane M. Gaines, Michael Renov (Eds.), S. 176-190. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.