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.
Baartman’s short, deplorable life is the subject of writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s riveting Black Venus, which is built around the phenomenal lead performance of Yahima Torres, in her acting debut. “I think it was destiny,” Torres says by phone from Venice, where Black Venus had its world premiere earlier this month, of her involvement in the film. The Havana native, 30, left Cuba for France seven years ago to teach Spanish to children; she met Kechiche by chance in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris in 2005, when he was preparing The Secret of the Grain (2007), his critically successful tale of Arab-immigrant aspirations in a French port town. He called her three years later to audition for the title role. “When Abdel said I had the part, I started training,” Torres remembers. “I had to learn a lot of things: how to speak Afrikaans, Sarah’s language, how to dance, how to create relationships with the other actors.”
Playing Baartman, who is routinely ogled, dehumanized, and degraded, would be a challenge for even the most seasoned performer. But Torres was unfazed, immediately realizing what her first acting experience would require. “I knew Abdel was going to ask a lot of me because that was necessary to play this character,” she explains. “I read Sarah’s story and knew that my role would require a lot of physical and emotional pain.”
The camaraderie Torres developed with her co-stars helped make her first acting experience less daunting. “There were scenes that were quite difficult, especially the ones where I’m naked,” she explains. “But the other actors”—including long-time screen veterans Andre Jacobs as Caezar, Olivier Gourmet as Baartman’s handler in Paris, Elina Löwensohn as a fellow prostitute, and François Marthouret as the genitalia-obsessed scientist—“showed a lot of respect, and they were all very careful.”
Yet for all of the indignities Baartman endures, Black Venus refuses to portray her as just a mute victim. The script, which Kechiche wrote with Ghalia Lacroix, doesn’t hector or lecture to prove its points about oppression, racism, and enslavement. And Torres, in a remarkably nuanced performance, shows Baartman’s many complexities: as a woman marked by a lifetime of profound grief and suffering who was still capable of fierce defiance. “Sarah was a very mysterious person, and she had a lot of sadness inside her,” Torres says, referring not just to the debasements in London and Paris, but also to the death of Baartman’s three children in South Africa. “Since she could not speak the language in Europe, she found shelter in her silence and in the way that she could look around her. Through her eyes, you can see what she’s thinking and the way she finds a relationship with the surrounding environment.”
It’s precisely Baartman’s gaze—returned at those who are profiting from her and those who have paid to leer at and fondle her—that is the film’s most damning indictment of their depraved behavior. “Anyone can find their own message in Black Venus,” Torres says. “The film will make us question ourselves and show that man can go to extremes, can do very bad things.”
‘Black Venus’ plays at Alice Tully Hall October 7 and 9