Volume 2, Issue 1, October 2011
Black Venus/Vénus Noire
No one who sees the film is likely to forget the magnificent performance of its star, Yahima Torres. The woman she plays, Sara Baartman, is best known to historians as the subject of Georges Cuvier’s prurient comparative anatomy, but the recent repatriation of her remains to South Africa has also renewed curiosity about her fate and granted her some agency. As Matt Ramsey explains in his highly-informative review, the film is constructed as a series of vignettes that follow Baartman’s career in Europe’s freak shows and thus allows the selection of scenes to illustrate racial science, abolitionism, public entertainments and sexuality. The film as a whole, we are warned, requires careful framing, but those very pitfalls can induce fruitful discussions. “On-demand” viewing, which is increasingly becoming our sole source for foreign films, might well offer a silver lining. Longer films such as this one can now be assigned, at minimal cost, for home viewing and thus permit comparison with documentaries.
To read the review…
Haussmann or the Distinction
It is hard to imagine, come a certain age, having to finish a novel one does not like, as was the case with our present reviewer. Skeptics might keep in mind the paucity of novels about haussmannization. Short of assigning one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquarts, the field is rather barren. It was therefore intriguing to discover that a contemporary novelist has engaged with the period imaginatively, transposing the relationship between Haussmann and Paris into a “romance.” An adolescent girl, Madeleine, (whom we might treat as Paris herself) raised on the crowded and insalubrious Ile de la Cité, dreams of a “lost nobility.” In her yearning for upward mobility and self-improvement, she gives herself to (or alternatively, is “rescued by”) a Parisian entrepreneur, a demolition man who makes a fortune from urban renewal. Through his ambitions and hers, she becomes Haussmann’s mistress, and they form a precarious ménage-à-trois. That the romance turns sour is yet another reminder of the allegorical nature of this work. The playfulness includes pastiches of the nineteenth-century French novel with its obsession with the corrupt and hypocritical mores of the Second Empire. Paul La Farge did not write his novel with French historians in mind but, once one accepts the leap into fiction and reliance on metaphor, one can appreciate the cleverness of its conceit and, if one is so inclined, ask students what they make of this treatment of the rebuilding of Paris — that watershed moment, as David Jordan reminds us, not only in French but in world history.
To read the review…
Army of Shadows and Lacombe, Lucien
Why people chose to join the Resistance is a question that historians must strive to answer, and they do so with caution and trepidation because there is no simple answer. If fiction offers far greater freedom to speculate on the motivations of resisters, two of the most potent films to grapple with this issue, Army of Shadows and Lacombe, Lucien, jettison a psychological approach. The first presumes that resistance was necessary and focuses on the moral dilemmas such engagement posed for participants; the second famously proposes that the decision to resist or to collaborate was the result of circumstances rather than ideological commitment. Whether one agrees with this proposition or not, Lacombe, Lucien just like Army of Shadows, raises the important question of choice and what it entailed, as our two specialists demonstrate. Students like to imagine how they would have responded and need sophisticated ways to think about it. The resistance continues to attract writers and filmmakers, as witnessed by the release of Ismael Ferroukhi’s Les hommes libres (Free Men) in September which, like other recent films, seks to highlight a little-known aspect of Parisian resistance. Michael Lonsdale plays Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, rector of the Paris Mosque, who saw it as his humanitarian duty to hide Jews and resisters, and Tahar Rahim, of The Prophet fame, a young Algerian who drifts, somewhat Lucien Lacombe-like, into collaboration before experiencing moral qualms and a change of heart. Unlike the despair of Army of Shadows or the cynicism of Lacombe, Lucien, and without being maudlin, the film offers a psychologically credible depiction of engagement.
To read the review…