Postcard from Venice: Farewell to the Festival (and a Possible Golden Lion Winner)

This year the European press has complained bitterly about the quality of the films chosen first for Berlin, then for Cannes: The sense seemed to be that the selection committees for these festivals had somehow failed to find the best films out there, though of course it's hard to know how much of the problem lies in programming and how much can be attributed to the quality of the raw goods out there. Festivals can make programming choices, but they can't pull great movies out of thin air.

There are still three more days to go in Venice, but the sense here among the critics I've talked to, most them European (there are very few Americans here), is that it's been a surprisingly good festival -- and believe me, the European critics will always the first ones to tell you when they think a festival is crap. It's possible that Venice, occurring so late in the festival season, was able to catch some releases that weren't ready in time for Cannes. It could also be judicious programming. Most likely, it's a combination of both, but I have to agree with my usually grumpy European friends: Though I've hardly loved everything I've seen here, I'd still say that the films in competition here have been fairly, and refreshingly, dud-free.

There were a few pictures I attempted to scale and just couldn't hack, like Mario Martone's three-hours-plus historical epic Noi credevamo, about the unification of Italy. Even so, from the two-thirds I sat through, I could see that the picture was decently made, and I admire its ambition: Who these days even attempts to make a straightforward historical epic loaded with expensive period details?

But looking back over the movies I've seen in the past week (this is my last day here; I decamp tomorrow for Toronto), I would say that the jury, led this year by Quentin Tarantino, has its work cut out for it in determining what should win the Golden Lion. I myself am hard-pressed to pick a favorite. As much as I loved Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, the picture I can't shake is the one I saw last night: Abdellatif Kechiche's Vénus Noir.

Vénus Noir is based on a true story, that of Saartjie Baartman, a black South African woman -- a servant -- who emigrated to London with her master in the early 1800s. She worked as a sideshow attraction, billed as the "Hottentot Venus," although that's not how we first see Saartjie in Vénus Noir: She's introduced to us as an unnervingly lifelike plaster cast, a specimen with no name or identity -- what we see is a fully rounded, heavy-set woman; her eyes are closed, and she wears what appears to be a placid, resigned expression on her face. She's naked, and she stands in an auditorium before an audience of beard-stroking observers, as a stiff, blowhard 19th-century French scientist points out various "oddities" of her anatomy, parts of which he holds aloft, pickled in a jar. At one point he notes how closely the shape of her skull resembles that of an ape.

When we eventually see the flesh-and-blood Saartjie (played by Yahima Torres), she's performing in front of a jeering, leering, lower-class audience, playing the savage for their delectation. Her employer, Caezar (Andre Jacobs) -- though he really is Saartjie's master, despite the fact that he's paying her -- leads her through a series of antics: Dressed in a flesh-colored jersey leotard with an assortment of beads and shells draped around both her neck and her hips, she squats, grunts, growls and dances; at one point Caezar hands her a small, stringed instrument, and she bashes away at it enthusiastically and clumsily. Saartjie is giving the audience what it wants: Confirmation of what it thinks a "savage" ought to be.

In private, Saartjie is another person altogether, a soft-spoken woman with wary eyes and a full mouth that never dares even attempt a smile. She speaks Afrikaans, and is trying to learn some English. She wears conventional, if not particularly fine, street clothes. And she can sing beautifully, accompanying herself on that stringed instrument, which she plays with heartfelt, pitch-perfect skill. Caezar may bark at her during the duo's performances, but in private -- the two share quarters, we assume platonically -- he speaks to her kindly, reminding her that together they'll make lots of money and she'll then be able to return to Cape Town, buy a house, marry and start a family.

It's clear from the start that Caezar's benevolence is really a form of cruelty, though it's nothing compared with the fate that eventually befalls Saartjie. I fear that the way I've described Vénus Noir suggests that Kechiche -- whose last picture was Secret of the Grain -- is just making obvious points about the value of human dignity. But the marvel, and the horror, of Vénus Noir is that he'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 -- the single night of sleep I've had between seeing the movie and writing about it is hardly enough to erase it -- is Torres' 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.

So this, at last, is the end of my time in Venice. Though I tried to see all of the films in competition, I was able to catch only two-thirds of them. Some that I was greatly looking forward to -- like Tom Tykwer's Drei and Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere -- will screen after I leave.

My panel is over -- it was a lively and engaging discussion of the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci, admirably led by the film critic and scholar Peter Cowie -- and because I think it's impossible to report on a panel at which one has been a speaker, I can only urge you to check out a few Corbuccis if you've never seen any: Django, Minnesota Clay and Hellbenders are all available on DVD (though The Great Silence, perhaps the finest and most haunting Corbucci, is available only as a Region 2 disc, which means you'll need an all-code player to watch it). Be forewarned: Corbucci's pictures tend to be bloodier, more brutal and more fatalistic than those of his better-known contemporary, Sergio Leone, but even when they're something of a mess, they're always bleakly beautiful and wholly alive.

It's been drizzly off and on here in Venice for the past week, with one torrential downpour occurring last week, during the first screening of Somewhere, which resulted in the flooding and temporary closing of the festival's press room. As I write this from my hotel room, the heavens have opened up again, and the power has just gone out. The view of the lagoon from my hotel room has all the turbulent, misty gray drama of a Turner painting. It may not be the prettiest day I've ever seen in Venice, though it's possibly one of the most beautiful. And rain or no, it's always hard to say goodbye.


  • richie-rich says:

    I just voted for SOMEWHERE!
    Toronto full speed ahead!!

  • Donald says:

    I'm so glad you saw Black Venus. I can't wait to see it.
    I love Kechiche's films - a beautiful one is "Games of Love and Chance" and of course the excellent "Secret of the Grain" mentioned above. I still haven't seen his first feature, Because of Voltaire, I believe is its title.
    Anyway, thanks Stephanie for your coverage of the festival. It was the next best thing...