Saturday, May 19, 2018

U.S. Blu-ray debut for Abdellatif Kechiche's stunning, if overlong BLACK VENUS

Tunisian-born filmmaker
Abdellatif Kechiche, who has lived in France since the age of six, has now written and directed eight (very) full-length films. One of his hallmarks, in fact, is length. The four of his films that TrustMovies has seen are too long. His shortest (Games of Love and Chance) runs just over two hours, and his longest (Blue is the Warmest Color) a three full hours. His latest, in fact (not yet seen in the USA), is so long that it had to be split into two parts, with the first one running nearly three hours all by itself.

While judicious editing anywhere from ten to thirty minutes would improve each Kechiche film mightily (the filmmaker is shown at left), still, I would not have wanted to miss any of them. BLACK VENUS (from 2010), which makes it U.S. Blu-ray debut this coming week via Arrow Academy, may be the best of the lot -- even though at the time of its international festival/theatrical debut, it was rather roundly panned for being exploitative and/or sleazy in terms of its handling of story and lead actress, the memorable Yahima Torres (shown below). Again, I suspect this stems as much from America's ever-prudish sensibilities as from the too-lengthy scenes of the degradation of the film's main character, a black woman known during the time frame of the film's setting -- 1810 through 1815 -- as the Hottentot Venus. Audiences quickly got the point M. Kechiche was making -- yes,  this is awful stuff! -- but the filmmaker's refusal to tighten his scenes comes off as though he's unduly rubbing it in.

And yet, in many ways this is Kechiche's most powerful movie: Stunningly beautiful and eye-poppingly gorgeous in its new Blu-ray transfer (Arrow offers some of the best transfers I've seen), it captures the time and place in all their despairing, often ugly glory. And the story it tells of the abuse of this woman, born Sarah Baartman in South Africa, is such a staggeringly amazing and ugly one that it practically becomes an instant and major historical marker for the Me Too movement. (In this sense the movie was nearly a decade ahead of its time -- as poor Ms Baartman was a couple of centuries ahead of hers.)

Performances from the entire cast  -- Kechiche's usual "unknowns" (here led by the amazing Ms Torres, who, sadly, has done no acting work at all since this, her debut role) mixed with some very "well-knowns" (Olivier Gourmet (above and below), Andre Jacobs (below, right), and the incomparable Elina Löwensohn).

M. Kechiche proves himself once again a born filmmaker, despite his love of length and overkill. How he tells his tale -- beginning with a lecture given by and to France's leading doctors and professors regarding the sexual organs of the Hottentot, then arriving full circle, once we've learned the history and current-day story of our black beauty -- could hardly be bettered, save for the occasional need of those editing scissors.

The costumes, sets, and ace cinematography (from Lubomir Bakchev) all conspire to make viewing the movie a consistent pleasure, even as we move from the "peep" show staged in London (below)...

to the British high court (below), where our little "theatrical troupe" is brought up on charges to the environs of French royalty, who at least act somewhat better toward our heroine than do England's hoi polloi.

All the while, and despite (sometimes because of) the despicable circumstances of our hottentot, we find ourselves, over and over again, entering her mind, soul and heart. And Ms Torres' remarkable performance enables us to do this so easily, thanks to her seeming innate ability to simply be this young woman: to bring us into her thoughts and desires, her abilities and her hopes.

Where Sarah Baartman goes and how she gets there will amaze and disturb, and the filmmaker sees to it that every jolt sinks in, along with the very occasional moment of kindness or delight.

Despite its flaws, Black Venus is an extremely powerful film. I believe it only received a minor limited theatrical release some years back, so I hope viewers will be able catch it in this current format.

From Arrow Academy and distributed in the USA via MVD Entertainment Group, the film hits Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, May 22 -- for purchase and (I would hope) rental.

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