If there is a thread running through some of this year's New York Film Festival selections, it is the acceptance of the enigmatic in human beings. Andrei Ujicâ's documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, for instance, used extensive footage of the notorious Romanian leader not to probe into the man's inner life, but to subversively present an extended version of his brand of public pageantry over the course of his decades of political prominence. In exploring the international terrorist who took the title's nom de guerre, Olivier Assayas, in Carlos, focused more on the vast disconnect between the man himself and the rock-star image he cultivated than in necessarily painting a detailed psychological portrait. And on the fiction front, Cristi Puiu, in Aurora, fastidiously observed his main character's increasingly irrational behavior in a perhaps deliberately failed attempt to get inside the head of a seemingly normal individual who commits four acts of homicide. In each of these films, there is a marked absence of psychological or emotional connection, the implication being that human beings are so complex and multifaceted that the more honest approach to these characters/real-life figures would be to simply recreate a milieu as immaculately as possible, invite the audience to look on and draw its own conclusions.
Add Abdellatif Kechiche's Black Venus and Pablo Larraín's Post Mortem to the mix. Kechiche's drama is based on real events in the tragic life of Saartjie Baartman (1779 - 1815), the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” while Larraín's film spins a horrifying black comedy out of the military coup in Chile in 1973. Both films draw much of their power from its deliberate avoidance of psychological explanations and their embrace of emotional distance.
The South African-born Saartjie (played by newcomer Yahima Torres) is especially difficult to pin down as Kechiche depicts the events in her life in the film. Persuaded by her master, Hendrik Caezar (Andre Jacobs), to come to England in hopes of fulfilling her dreams of becoming an artist, she instead ends up becoming an object of public exploitation—and yet, when Caezar is forced to appear in court on charges of exactly that, Saartjie instead testifies that she is indeed performing of her own free will. Whether that's true or not, Kechiche leaves the question open (most likely, it's a matter of being technically free but psychologically enslaved). Instead, questions of art seem to fascinate Kechiche the most. Is there truly something to her masters' claims that Saartjie is indeed fulfilling her artistic ambitions through her exhibitionism, or are they merely sweet-talking her to get her to play along? And if it's the latter, then is there any possibility of artistry in that kind of public exhibitionism if she truly does give all of herself to such performances?
That discomfiting question at the heart of Black Venus possibly explains Kechiche's bound-to-be-controversial decision to prolong some of the film's more uncomfortable sequences of Saartjie's public degradation. Instead of mere pornographic delectation, however (after all, we see her suffering through some of these performances), I think Kechiche is challenging us to contemplate not only the mysteries behind Saartjie's behavior, but the slippery nature of public artistry. You may give of yourself completely to this kind of freak show, as she often did, but if she's merely there to confirm the belief systems of the period, what is such “artistry” worth, really, if it ends up stripping her of dignity altogether?
Kechiche details this sad, slow erasure of dignity with an impassive eye, though not without compassion or empathy. And he has in Yahima Torres an actress nearly as astute in expressing delicate female emotions under enormous stress as Renée Jeanne Falconetti was in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, another sobering chronicle of a martyr's persecution. Make no mistake though: Kechiche doesn't allow us the comfort of drawing simple conclusions from Saartjie's story.
Impassivity also characterizes the latest provocation from Larraín. As with his last film, Tony Manero, Post Mortem stars Alfredo Castro, this time playing Mario, an autopsy transcriber at a morgue in Santiago who's once again so afflicted with tunnel vision that, as the Chilean military brutally clamps down on revolutionaries and threatens to bring the country down to its knees, all he can focus on is banging a cabaret dancer who lives next door. Larraín shoots this story with the same lengthy takes, deadpan sense of black-comic perversity, and grungy 16mm aesthetic of Tony Manero; once again, we are in the company of an inscrutable weirdo, one that Larraín isn't so much interested in understanding as simply observing with a coldly detached eye. Unlike in his previous film, however, he presents more of the horrors of Augusto Pinochet's military rule, providing a sobering counterpoint to the awkwardness of the central romance. His political commentary may not have matured all that much since Tony Manero (he once again spins a rather facile genre-bound metaphor to act in concert with the real-life terrors around it), but I have to admit, I found Post Mortem more grimly amusing, strangely affecting, and certainly unsettling than its overpraised predecessor. And its seemingly endless, unexpectedly devastating eight-minute concluding punchline is quite possibly some kind of classic.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.