Nicolas Philibert’s latest documentary observes the supreme diva, Nénette, a 40-year old orang-utan and the star attraction at Paris’ Jardin des Plantes zoo.
Monkey Business by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Taking centre-screen for almost the entire length of this 68 minute film (one can’t help but wonder how many of this year’s Best Actress nominees could handle such a feat!?), flame-haired Nénette is unruffled by the pressure. Several uninterrupted takes of her face last five minutes or more. She cuts an imposing figure, her dark, doleful eyes set amongst a lifetime’s worth of careworn wrinkles. No LA Botox or liposuction here! Occasionally joined on screen by three of her kin, Nénette’s close-up is accompanied by a soundtrack of imagined speculations, projected reactions from visitors to the zoo, “she looks sad”, “she is the same age as daddy”, “is she bored in there?” Joining the gang of foreign tourists and school groups, comments also come from an artist who regularly visits to sketch the larger than life ape, her long-suffering keepers, musician friends of the director and even a psychoanalyst. Layering the voyeurism, their responses to the gigantic beast cajole the audience towards an assumed understanding of Nénette’s behaviour.
Holding a mirror up to the human race, at times the spectators’ faces are reflected in the glass behind which the captive apes go about their daily lives. The three other orang-utans, Tübo, Théodora and Tamü, often press their faces and hands up against the glass, peering back, Nénette, on the other hand, lacks their youthful inquisitiveness and lurks discreetly back, pondering calmly. Having outlived three of her male companions (dare we call them husbands?) she appears to see no need for frivolous advances. One of Nénette’s keepers explains that orang-utans make very little noise, even in the wild, saving their vocal chords for warning cries in emergency situations. In fact, a local Bornean legend goes that the orang-utans can talk but choose to remain silent so that they won’t have to work. Failing to find her voice for the length of the film, Nénette leaves such vulgarities for her more loquacious cousins, both chimpanzee and homo sapiens. Explaining that in the wild orang-utans can spend up to 5 hours in the treetops watching the world go by, her keeper implies that such contemplation, giving an almost melancholy air in captivity, is merely a transfer of this behaviour.
Seemingly originally conceived as a short film, it is undeniable that Nénette, with its long, ponderous shots and the unflinching on-screen presence of its star, is lacking in unexpected plot twists and sometimes struggles to maintain the action for its whole length. Such is the intention of the director, “I don’t like to tell the audience what to think. I like to discover what is before me”. In his earlier film, Être et Avoir, Philibert’s subjects, the young children in a small provincial French school, share Nénette’s struggle with vocal expression, once again allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions. Forcing the viewer to confront this oh-so-humanlike creature however, Philibert calls into question the validity of the incarceration of these primates and the destruction of their threatened native Bornean habitat. “It wouldn’t be the same if I had filmed a cow…but Nénette is at the same time both close and mysterious” the director maintains, intriguingly going on to compare Nénette’s mysteries with those of another Parisian woman of allure, the Mona Lisa.
The oldest zoo in the world, and formerly the focus of vehement protest from French animal rights groups, the Jardin des Plantes recently underwent a limited refurbishment; the larger inmates were moved out to more spacious, provincial French zoos and the message has been redefined as one of protection of the endangered species rather than as a visitor attraction. Confronted with Nénette’s apparently despondent gaze though, it’s not hard to identify with her keeper’s assertion that all the zoo’s employees share a deep sense of culpabilité. Far from overtly moralizing, the final scenes of Philibert’s film show Nénette at her most human, drinking tea and eating yoghurt, oblivious to the debate as it rages around her.
Nénette is released in the UK on February 4th 2011