"Abdellatif Kechiche's Couscous [The Secret of the Grain] was pipped at the post for the Golden Lion in 2007 by Ang Lee's unpleasant Lust, Caution," writes Roderick Conway Morris for the International Herald Tribune, "and the French director's in-competition Venus Noire seemed to offer the chance for him to vindicate himself at Venice. But the nearly three-hour film about Saartjie Baartman (Yahima Torres), the so-called Hottentot Venus who was exhibited in public halls in London and theaters and salons in Paris in the early 19th century, was repetitive and disappointing."
The press screening was packed, notes In Contention's Guy Lodge, but "applause was more scattered than one might have expected for a display of such voluminous craft and ambition; the silence, one suspects, was that of an audience assessing which lines had and hadn't been crossed. For my part, I remain stuck in a halfway house between immense appreciation that Kechiche has brought the extraordinary story of Saartjie Baartman... to the screen; and regret that he's chosen to tell it in such a way that the film becomes complicit in the objectification it claims to decry."
"In the title role, Havana native Yahima Torres, 30, felt a compulsion to tell the story of Baartman, who in 1808 allowed her boss to take her from southern Africa, then ruled by Dutch settlers known as Boers, in search of fame and fortune in Europe," reports Gina Doggett. "'It was worth it' despite the scenes of degradation and nudity and having to gain more than 13 kilos (nearly 30 pounds), Torres told AFP of her first film role. 'It's a story you have to tell as a human being, as a woman.'"
Jay Weissberg in Variety: "Everyone wanted the 'Hottentot Venus' to be something she wasn't — a savage, a princess, a freak — and by straying from the record, Kechiche forces her to become something she'd surely shy away from: the representative of racial maltreatment, a symbol rather than a person. Yet thankfully the helmer also grants her private dignity and unfathomable thoughts that defy manipulation."
But for Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek, "the marvel, and the horror, of Vénus Noir is that [Kechiche's] not making points at all. He's merely showing, which is all he needs to do, and there's so much feeling sewn into his filmmaking that the images often speak for themselves. What still haunts me about Vénus Noir... is Torres's face. It absorbs and reflects everything around her, every hint of degradation and kindness, and she's able to express bottomlessly complex feelings with nothing more than the flicker of an eyelash. Kechiche shapes the movie carefully around this delicate performance, almost as if he were composing a piece of music around it. And that's exactly what Vénus Noir is: A mournful song in the form of a movie."
"Kechiche has described how when he started out as an actor he found it hard to deal with people's expectations of him as an Arab," notes Camillo de Marco at Cineuropa. "[H]e felt caged in.... Today, as a director, he is caged in by the aesthetic responsibility of directing the viewer's gaze. Like Saartjie's skillful managers, Caezar and Réaux (played by Andre Jacobs and Olivier Gourmet, respectively), and even scientist Cuvier (François Marthouret), who are concerned with giving audiences what they expect."
Black Venus screens at the New York Film Festival on October 7 and 8.
Update: "Some scenes of Reaux's manipulation of Saartije before an audience of giggling ladies and gentlemen are among the most painful in recent cinema," writes Mary Corliss for Time. "[T]o watch them is to acknowledge complicity in four centuries of white men's subjugation of black women (and men)."
Update, 9/11: "Black Venus is definitely overlong at 160 minutes," writes Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. "'We get it, we get it!' we want to say as Kechiche's film lays siege to any hint of racism that might be holding out in an audience with a heritage of colonial culpability.... We feel harangued, though Torres is impressive in the main role, compelling our sympathy even as Kechiche tries to arraign us for our complicity."
Coverage of the coverage: Venice 2010. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.