Abdellatif Kechiche's "riveting" Black Venus is "built around the phenomenal lead performance of Yahima Torres," writes Melissa Anderson, introducing her interview with the actress. But first, a few words — okay, more than a few — on the character she plays:
"Her name is synonymous with the ugliest of racial and sexual exploitation: The 'Hottentot Venus' — born Sarah 'Saartjie' Baartman in South Africa, circa 1770 — became a freak-show attraction in early-19th-century Europe, where she was brought by her slave master/manager, Hendrik Caezar. In grimy London carnivals and, later, in the libertine salons of aristocratic Parisians, Baartman was gawked at and groped (and more), the object of prurient fascination of those mesmerized by her 'savage' performances and her enlarged buttocks and labia — physical conditions that would soon attract the relentless scrutiny of French anatomists. After her act lost its titillating appeal, she turned to prostitution; Baartman died in 1815, most likely due to a combination of pneumonia and venereal disease."
"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," writes Nick Schager, who finds that "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.... Black Venus' exhaustive, exhausting repetitiveness ultimately negates its critique."
"The New York Times' Manohla Dargis dismissed Black Venus as bad filmmaking," notes Aaron Cutler in Slant, "and from a technical standpoint, she's right. But the film's rendering of period sets and costumes with cruddy camerawork makes us aware that the film is a limited dramatic representation of real life. We don't just react to the fictional Saartjie's torments, but grow repulsed with the thought of how much worse her real suffering was. In this case, bad filmmaking is good."
"Kechiche details this sad, slow erasure of dignity with an impassive eye, though not without compassion or empathy," argues Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door. "And he has in Yahima Torrès an actress nearly as astute in expressing delicate female emotions under enormous stress as Renée Maria Falconetti was in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, another sobering chronicle of a martyr's persecution. Make no mistake though: Kechiche doesn't allow us the comfort of drawing simple conclusions from Saartjie's story."
David Fear in Time Out New York: "The movie's relentless pageantry of pain ultimately feels less like a humanist exploration of social ills than an endurance test — and that's long before Dardenne-brothers regular Olivier Gourmet rides Torres like a horse before horny aristocrats."
"As viewers we see the selfish particulars of Gourmet's character, but the indelible power of Kechiche's film is that his unrelenting focus on Baartman assures that we feel those transgressions from her perspective," writes David Ehrlich in Cinematical.
Screens this evening and Saturday. Earlier: Reviews from Venice.
Update, 10/9: "Kechiche cuts between Saartjie's autopsy and the artist who makes her cast, noting sympathetically the poignant, human pain in her frozen expression," writes the L's Mark Asch. "Kechiche seems to think he's like this genuinely forward-looking model of compassion, rescuing a real person from history. But when you lay your lead actress naked and immobile on a table and film a doctor shaving her pubic hair with a straight razor, for the sake of scene in which doctors shave the naked, immobile character's pubic hair with a straight razor... Well, what, finally, is the difference between you and them?"
Coverage of the coverage: NYFF 2010. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.