Venus Noire: A 19th century tale of modern exploitation

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Last year’s Palme d’Or winner was La Vie d’Adèle (Blue Is The Warmest Colour), Abtellatif Kechiche’s adaptation from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh. The celebratory feel of the win, with the unprecedented decision of the two female leads sharing the award with it’s director, was soured by a storm of controversy and it wasn’t long before those sunny Côte d’Azur smiles turned to stormy anger: Kechiche had a mutiny on his hands, not only from his two actresses, who levelled accusations of abusive behaviour on set, but also stories surfaced on how members of the crew had revolted against the violation of labour laws and tyrannical working conditions, leading to many of them quitting. Before Kechiche was the darling of the Cannes tapis rouge, he had made a previous film, which wasn’t quite as acclaimed. In fact it didn’t even make international distribution and had sunk without a trace. Venus Noire, the story of Sarah (Saartje) Baartman, an African tribeswoman who, in the early nineteenth century, was taken from her homeland and exhibited in various freak shows across Europe as the Hottentot Venus. She was later examined and studied by French anatomists as an anthropological curio before being discarded and dying ignobly in poverty in Paris.

As a film extra for Venus Noire a few years ago, I found myself corralled with a motley troupe of assorted types; our only remit as ‘background artistes’ was that in order to authenticate our early nineteenth-century selves, personal grooming was out. This meant no shaving, no hair washing, or salon visits for a month. Daniel Day Lewis method preparation for what is, in the world of the film extra, essentially human props. Think Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, with all the scope of a broom cupboard. Once assembled at Gare de Lyon, would-be scullery maids with birds nest, straw hair, well-to-do/shabby-genteel bourgeoisie mingling with dodgy Hogarthian types and down-at-heel tradesmen with ratty beards were transported by train and shuttled by minibuses to a drizzly bucolic location outside Paris. The film crew had set up camp in an old fortress dating back to the 18th century. The yard had been converted into a Regency period Piccadilly street scene. The art direction paid off: at night braziers burned and the sooty street was filled with carnivalesque performers of acrobats, fire-eaters and jugglers entertaining the crowd and competing for their attention. Our unkempt appearance fitted well with the period costumes. A kind of primitive, pre-industrial revolution Elephant Man vibe pervaded the set: Candelabra Prog Rock to Lynch’s Steampunk vision. In a decaying makeshift theatre with tallowed walls, we were a braying London mob, whilst the Venus Hottentot was forced to go through her tired onstage routine for the edification of the crowd. To counter the boredom of continuous takes we began assuming and then fleshing out our Regency period personas. It became an actors’ workshop of improvisation. Riffing on the premise that we were unenlightened colonial racists on a good night out, we warmed to the chance of re-visiting a guilty ancestral past with gusto. Thus, the portly and effusive English opera singer became a buffoonish Pumblechook character, bouncing up and down in his seat, the Liverpudlian carpenter and ex-Legionnaire became grizzled and murderous looking, lurking in the shadows and the tall, Irish-Bostonian interior designer became a swarthy Alex Durbeyfield coxcomb with red mutton chop sideburns. A harried looking assistant director climbed up on stage and gave a lecture between takes about language authenticity and the avoidance of anything remotely 21st century sounding, amidst the enthusiastic catcalling. To be fair, I had heard quite a bit of glaringly inauthentic terms and patois tossed about that would have made even Tim Westwood cringe. Someone kept calling out ‘Bitch’, a word which, she claimed wasn’t around at the time, (really?) and even if it was, she continued hastily, this kind of word had no place in the type of film that Kechiche was making. Did this mean that this was going to be a film about slavery suitable for family viewing? That had me scratching my unwashed head. On the morning train to the location, the French extras were fomenting revolution, like a group of migrant labourers in boxcar transit preaching dissension against an unscrupulous gang master. Our 90-euro-per-day shooting schedules were getting longer for no extra pay and none of us were getting back home until the early hours of the morning. The French word for strike (grève) was being bandied about. Were the wimpy Anglo-Saxons going to get with the program, unite with our militant brothers and storm the Bastille, after all, it wasn’t as though we weren’t dressed for it? The puppet master Kechiche typically presided over everything from a tent, eyes fixed firmly on a monitor. What struck me about him, compared to other directors I’d had experience with, was his detachment from his particular Wellsian train set. There was very little engagement with anyone, apart from the principle cast. Everything was delegated, with lines of communication being relayed back and forth by various minions. To him we were the invisible, bottom-of-the-food-chain plankton to his village pond Moby Dick. Instead, he relied on others to come to us hat in hand and ask if we could see our way into staying a few more hours. Terms were discussed in the swirling drizzle; bored coach drivers waiting to take us back to Paris turned off their idling engines and drank tepid coffee from thermoses. A deal was hammered out for another twenty euros.

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I had spent most of my final day’s shooting being pulled up and down a muddy street in a horse and carriage. My companion inside the carriage’s musty confines was a French woman who had given up her corporate life for the theatre. Amidst the cracked leather and mothball aroma, she kept lamenting about the waste of resources that had gone into the set design from our lofty view from the carriage window and how much better it could have been employed for the stage. She had recently returned from the Côte d’Ivoire, from which she had brought back a black paramour (half her age) and was confounding the conventions of middle-aged sex tourism by battling to get him legal residency in France. True love against all odds, or, given the context of the film, a method preparation too far?

The French film industry, we are told, is able to function because of the loose labour conditions that enable the ninety-per-cent of the independent productions to be made. We hear of film crews taking a fifty-per-cent cut in their wages and working overtime without pay. The very survival of French independent cinema is dependent on the abstraction of these grey labour laws. Directors such as Francois Ozon have warned that a proposed repeal of these regulations under the Hollande administration would be a disastrous blow to the independents.

It would seem that Mr Kechiche’s autocratic behaviour is borne out of the specious auteur theory, a theory that the director is the sole author of the work. If so, then the next time you terrorise your typically naked female leads, Mr Kechiche, or expect your crew to work overtime without pay, then please remember the travelling circus might not be quite so eager to set up camp and help you realise your next exploitative and misogynist ‘vision’. No one else should be held accountable, though, for how truly dreadful Venus Noire turned out, so that’s one for the auteurs.

At the end of La Vie d’Adèle a character says he gave up acting to become a real estate agent because he, quote: ‘Had enough of working with ball-busting directors’. Did Kechiche have anyone in mind when he penned that line, perchance, or was it simply a soupçon of cinéma vérité?




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