Volume 2, Issue 1
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.
Black Venus/Vénus Noire
The first three feature-length films by the Tunisian-born actor, screenwriter and director Abdellatif Kechiche — La Faute à Voltaire (2000), L’Esquive (2003), and La Graine et le mulet (2007) — dealt with the Arab communities of contemporary France. His fourth, Vénus noire, released in France in October 2010, could be called a historical biopic if that breezy term did not seem at odds with the film’s deep moral seriousness. His subject is Sara or Saartjie Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman from the Cape Colony in South Africa who, between 1810 and her death in 1815, was exhibited first in England and then in Paris as the “Hottentot Venus.” For two centuries she has continued to fascinate, first as an emblem of the exotic erotic and more recently as a victim of scientific racism and the sexual fetishization of black women.
Baartman was born in the 1770s. A trader named Pieter Cesars (sometimes spelled Cesar or Caezar) brought her to Cape Town, where she wound up working as a servant for Pieter’s brother Hendrik. The brothers were free blacks descended from slaves, though that might not have been apparent from their skin color; their surname probably reflected the practice of mockingly naming slaves after classical heroes. Hendrik arranged with Alexander Dunlop, a British naval surgeon, to bring Baartman to London in 1810 and put her on display in Piccadilly Street as the Hottentot Venus. “Hottentot” was the Dutch settlers’ term for the Khoekhoe people; the etymology is disputed, but it is commonly said to derive from the Dutch word for ‘stutter’ (stotteren), a reference to the frequent click sounds in the Khoekhoe language. The spectacle combined elements of the freak show — Baartman had the very prominent buttocks characteristic of the Khoekhoe, especially women, later termed “steatopygia” — and the ethnographic exhibits, often featuring living representatives of non-Western peoples, that became increasingly common over the course of the nineteenth century. Baartman wore a suggestive tight-fitting brown dress, and spectators were encouraged to touch her body.
Reports about Baartman drew the attention of Zachary Macaulay and other members of the African Institution, abolitionists who had only recently won a legal end to the slave trade. They publicly charged that Cesars had brought her to England against her will and was subjecting her to degrading treatment. In late 1810, the King’s Bench, the highest civil court, agreed to hear the case. After Baartman testified that she freely chose to perform in her shows and had no wish to return to South Africa, the court dismissed the complaint. Baartman subsequently traveled in England and Ireland, often appearing at local fairs.
In September 1814, Baartman and her then manager took the Hottentot Venus show to Paris. During the winter, she passed into the hands of an exhibitor of trained animals named Réaux. In March 1815, he made her available for scientific study to Georges Cuvier and his colleagues in comparative anatomy at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. They subjected her to a minute examination, but she refused to show them what they most wanted to see, her genitalia. Cuvier was eager to confirm the presence of the Hottentot “apron,” a distinctive organ or appendage reported by some travelers in the Cape.
The scientists got their opportunity after Baartman’s death and determined that the apron consisted simply of the elongated labia minora. They made a cast of the corpse, dissected it, and after removing the brain and the genitals, boiled the remains and extracted and reassembled the bones. The skeleton and the cast, painted in life-like colors, remained in the Museum’s collections until they were transferred to the new Musée de l’homme in 1937. There they remained on public display until 1974. The cast emerged from storage twenty years later for an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay of nineteenth-century ethnographic sculpture. After Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency of South Africa, members of the Khoekhoe people appealed to him to arrange for the repatriation of her remains. The French scientific establishment resisted, and it took special legislation, passed in 2002, to compel the transfer.
Kechiche’s film opens with a scene in which Cuvier presents his findings to a scientific gathering, together with the cast and the genitals in a jar of preservative fluid, which the audience members pass around. It ends with the dissection and the making of the cast. The setting for the presentation is identified as the Académie Royale de Médecine, and the date as 1815. That institution was not founded until 1820. The words come from a report by Cuvier that appeared in 1817, the same year in which he published his most celebrated work, on the animal kingdom, which divided the human species into the Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian or Negro races. The report alludes to an academy, but it must have been the Académie des Sciences, which he served as permanent secretary for the physical sciences, and he must have addressed it after March 1816, when an ordinance of Louis XVIII reorganized the Institut de France and restored the names of the old academies.
Cuvier’s report gave special attention to the genitalia, but it was more broadly an exercise in comparative anatomy. The genitals, he wrote, did not suggest a link to the apes, which tend to have small labia. Other traits, however, struck Cuvier as simian. The large buttocks recalled mandrills and baboons. Baartman’s “brusque and capricious movements” were ape-like, and her habit of sticking out her lips made her resemble an orangutan. Her ears were like those of several apes. Other anatomical features were also signs of “animality.” Viewers of the film may be confused by Cuvier’s references to Baartman as a Bushman, the term applied by the Dutch to the San people, hunter-gatherers related to the pastoral Khoekhoe. He was convinced that her distinctive anatomical features were characteristic of the Bushmen rather than the Hottentots. But the spoken excerpts amply convey the depiction of Baartman, whatever her precise classification in Cuvier’s taxonomy, as something less than fully human.
The film follows Baartman’s story from her arrival in London until her death in Paris. The dialogue is in English, French and Afrikaans, the language Cesars and Baartman use to communicate with each other, and in which Baartman testifies in court. (One minor anachronism occurs when Cesars refers to Cape Dutch as “Afrikaans,” a term which did not come into widespread use until later in the nineteenth century. Some viewers may consciously or unconsciously associate it with apartheid.) To provide continuity between the English and French phases of the story, Réaux appears in London, accompanied by a trained bear and a heavily tattooed French prostitute named Jeanne, and Cesars goes with them and Baartman to France. In Paris, Cesars puts on the same show as before, with Jeanne translating his English into French and telling women in the audience that touching her will make them more fertile. None of this is supported by the historical record.
The part of the film set in England is dominated by Baartman’s performances as the Hottentot Venus and the notorious trial which called them into question and provided her with the occasion for a very different kind of performance. She is played by a young Cuban actress named Yahima Torres, who, in preparation for the role, studied Afrikaans, took theater, dance, singing and violin lessons, and put on weight. Much taller than the historical Baartman, who stood four feet six and a half inches tall, according to Cuvier, she is an imposing presence. (The cast in the scene at the academy appears to have been made from her body.) The power of all those scenes also owes a great deal to a remarkable performance by the South African actor Andre Jacobs, the voice of the stage act — Baartman is mostly mute — who invests the character of Cesars with a combination of entrepreneurial energy, unbridled ambition, and what seems like Calvinist sternness. The interaction of the two behind the scenes, in which the film maker imagines them quarreling over Baartman’s situation, complements the formal debate that takes place during the trial.
In the show, Cesars boasts of being one of the few white men who can speak the language of the Hottentot Venus, but during much of the performance he acts like a lion tamer, wielding a whip and struggling to control a savage beast. Baartman first appears in a cage, where she shakes the bars and reaches through them, grabbing Cesars and pretending to throttle him. When she emerges, with a rope attached to a collar around her neck, Cesars urges the audience to control its fears, even when she roars, attacks him and charges into the crowd. Then the “genuine savage” performs her tricks. She plays a bowed instrument ineptly, eliciting boos from the audience, and to their amusement, pretends to walk like a European lady. The spectators respond most enthusiastically to a supposed savage African dance, which calls attention to her steatopygia. Finally, Cesars invites audience members to prove their courage by touching her. At the conclusion, Baartman responds to a rousing ovation by bowing, a clear indication she sees herself as an actress rather than an exhibit.
Offstage, Baartman sinks into a depression, drinking and smoking heavily; both practices are historically documented. When Cesars urges her to return to work, she complains that she is tired and that the show is not what he had promised. She tells him that spectators can see but not touch. “Feeling is believing,” he responds; one purpose of the touching is to demonstrate that her buttocks have not been padded. Cesars alternates between cajolery and rage, sometimes mixed with self-pity (he reminds her that he left his wife and children to bring her to Europe). “Money is freedom,” he declares, and they need to make more of it so that she can return to South Africa as an independent woman. He plies her with gifts, including elegant clothing, and hires two black boys to attend to her needs. (Alexander Dunlop received permission to bring two young slaves to England, where slavery was banned. They lost their earlier status and became servants.) We see Baartman dressed as a lady riding with the two of them in a carriage to a fashionable shop.
Cesars’s rage explodes after a performance in which Baartman chooses to sing while playing her musical instrument. He tells her that he has had enough of her “whims” and “tantrums,” dismisses the servants, and vilifies her as a “stupid Negress.” He did not ask her to sing; the crowds come “to admire your backside.” Baartman protests that he in fact told her she could sing and dance, but that she has wound up in a cage, “grunting like an animal.” “Why don’t you go in the cage?” she defiantly asks him. She wants “beauty” in her performance, not ogling and pinching. In France, Cesars’s ire reaches its ultimate climax in an invented confrontation after Baartman has refused to spread her legs for Cuvier and his colleagues, forcing her managers to return the very large advance they had received for making her available. He demands several times that she return to the Museum; she quietly but firmly refuses. She cries; he beats her. Afterwards he accepts payment from Réaux for his share in the act and disappears from the film version of the story.
The scenes in Paris that show Baartman’s increasing sexual exploitation and degradation are mostly plausible but based on little more than conjecture. They include some of the most arresting in the film: her appearance as part of the erotic entertainment at an aristocratic salon, and her work as a prostitute, first in a brothel and then on the streets, after one of the medical inspections required at a maison de tolérance shows that she has advanced venereal disease and results in her expulsion from the establishment.
The central figure in Baartman’s life is now Réaux, played by the veteran Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet, who raises (or lowers) her act to a new level of eroticism and scopophilia. Early on, he pays Cesars to let him see her genitals. He tells her that she is most truly herself when naked and begins a sexual relationship with her. Baartman now wears a red costume in her increasingly risqué performances. When Cesars objects to what he sees as indecent elements in the new act and tells Réaux that he is “playing with fire,” the latter reminds him that “this is France.” In some ways Baartman now is less the wild beast than in England. She answers a few questions in French, and, after Réaux boasts that she has perfect pitch, takes up her musical instrument and first imitates some phrases played by a violinist and then joins him in a duet. Réaux, however, still tells her to pretend to be wild, and he rides her like a bronco and encourages audience members to do the same. He barks orders and cracks his whip, like the animal trainer that he is. At the aristocratic sex party she does not resist when Réaux encourages the participants to view and touch her genitals. As they do so, she begins to weep, and the revelers back off, some out of sympathy and some because her tears have spoiled their fun. Réaux screams that she is betraying and humiliating him. After they exit he strikes her and shouts that she is no artiste, that she is nothing, and that it is all over. When we see her next, she is in the brothel, which Réaux serves as a procurer.
Over the course of the two phases of the story, a contrast emerges between England and France of the Restoration and the Hundred Days. The first is depicted as a country where everyone enjoys certain basic rights. Cesars observes that hostile publicity in London cannot be stopped, because the English enjoy freedom of the press. At the end of the King’s Bench trial, the attorney for the African Institution concedes that his clients’ case must be dismissed but adds that “it is very much to the credit of our country that even a Hottentot can find friends to protects her interests.” Across the Channel is a land of debauchery where the rights of man and the citizen have been forgotten, and a human being can become a piece of property in all but name.
The film has a few other bright notes, even in the parts set in Paris. In one such scene, a member of Cuvier’s team who has been making sketches of Baartman’s body offers her as a gift a picture showing her as a mother with an infant rather than an anatomical subject. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of Baartman’s descent into a man-made hell is overwhelming. “Je cherche l’épuisement du spectateur,” Kechiche states in an interview (DVD leaflet, p. 9), and if that is his goal, he has succeeded. Unfortunately, the brutality and the graphic depictions of simulated sex in some scenes as well as the sheer length of the film make it problematic for classroom use. Students may wonder whether this account of nineteenth-century voyeurism at some point crosses a line, making the film itself seem exploitative and sensationalistic. A few excerpts — the scenes with Cuvier, the London trial, and perhaps one of the Piccadilly shows—might provide fodder for discussions of early-nineteenth century natural history, English abolitionism, and popular entertainments. As an alternative, though, instructors might consider using the documentary The Life and Times of Sara Baartman (1998) by Zola Maseko. It makes extensive use of talking heads and lacks the high drama of the reenactments in Vénus noire, but it is absorbing and thought-provoking and, with a running time of 53 minutes, the right length for classroom use.
- The account here follows Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
- La Sculpture ethnographique: De la Vénus hottentote à la Tehura de Gauguin, Les dossiers du Musée d’Orsay (Paris: Seuil, 1994).
- Georges Cuvier, Le Règne animal distribué d’après son organisation, pour servir de base pour l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction à l’anatomie comparée, 4 vols. (Paris: Deterville, 1817), 1:94.
- Georges Cuvier, “Extrait d’observations faites sur le cadavre d’une femme connue à Paris et à Londres sous le nom de Vénus Hottentotte,” Mémoires du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle 3 (1817): 259–74; quotations pp. 263, 269.
Abdellatif Kechiche, Director, Vénus noire (Black Venus), France, Belgium/Color. MK2 Productions, France 2 Cinéma, CinéCinéma, Running Time: 159 min.