Going Ape

12.21.10

Nicolas Philibert, Nénette, 2010, still from a color film, 67 minutes.


A JOLIE LAIDE red-haired Parisian of a certain age with four offspring by various mates, Nénette lives with Tubo, her youngest. Her address: Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, 5čme. Nénette is a forty-year-old orangutan, probably the oldest of her species in captivity or in the wild. With her fertility status unknown, her caretakers have put her on the Pill as a precaution. They do not know whether orangutans observe the incest taboo, and if Nénette should become pregnant again, her health might be endangered. Not to mention that it would look bad for the zoo’s breeding program, the rationale for any zoo’s existence. With their natural habitats severely diminished, orangutans are an endangered species.

Nénette is the titular subject of an oddball documentary by Nicolas Philibert, who is best known for To Be and to Have (2002), a captivating study of a French village grade school and its only teacher. To Be and to Have was an unexpected critical and popular success, in part because its empathetic teacher and his energetic young pupils felt like a beacon of hope in troubled times. Sadly, a shadow was cast over the movie when the teacher and some of the students’ parents sued Philibert for a piece of the profits, claiming that they had been led to believe that they were participating in an educational film with no commercial value. They lost the suit, the filmmaker’s lawyers countering that if their demand was upheld, it would have a chilling effect on documentary moviemaking in general.

It goes without saying that Nénette is in no position to drag Philibert back to court, and since she has spent her entire life as an object of the gaze, one camera more probably doesn’t matter to her. Still, Nénette’s subtext of subject-object relations and its setting—an institution where power and freedom are absolutely entwined—account for the unease it generates along with delight. The issue of zoos is little discussed, although some of Nénette’s keepers express grave reservations about keeping wild animals in captivity. The zoo in the Jardin des Plantes was renovated about five years ago, and the indoor cage and slightly more spacious outdoor enclosure that Nénette and Tubo share with two other orangutans are palatial compared with the “Ape House” in which Nénette lived for thirty years after she was brought from Borneo.

Hardly a candidate for a slot on Animal Planet, Nénette is structured by a complete separation of image and sound. A star attraction at the zoo, Nénette is the focus of almost every shot in the movie, some of them sustained for five or more minutes. There are a few cutaways to the three other orangutans, but there are no reverse angles—the only glimpses we have of Nénette’s human visitors and caretakers are as occasional indistinct reflections on the glass of her enclosure. On the sound track, however, we hear nothing except human voices—a collective stream of consciousness that mixes casual spectators, Nénette devotees, various zookeepers, and one or two scientists and philosophers. “They used to kill redheads at birth in Egypt,” says one woman. “She’s going through the stages of her life [in her mind],” opines another, of the diffident Nénette, who seldom interacts with her visitors and spends long periods of time doing nothing or performing household chores—arranging the straw of her mattress, wrapping herself in the bedclothes and then tossing them aside.

Like all great stars, Nénette is an enigma, She is more withdrawn than the other orangutans, perhaps because of her age, as one keeper speculates, or perhaps because she was born free. In the wild, orangutans spend much of their time high in the trees, simply observing the world around them. Nénette replicates this behavior in captivity, watching the people who watch her but without interacting. In this she is the alter ego of Philibert, a maker of observational documentaries. Indeed, the first shot of Nénette is an extreme close-up of the star’s rheumy, deep-set eyes; the unseen camera’s electronic eye stares into the animal’s eyes, revealing nothing about Nénette but worlds about our desire to transform perception into knowledge and power.

Late in the movie, we hear a man who seems to be an actor (he is the comedian Pierre Meunier) try to account for our fascination with Nénette. “The quality of her idleness,” he says, “makes me think of an acting exercise: ‘Ladies and gentleman, the space is yours to do whatever you want.’ A difficult exercise,” he continues, “when watched by others.” In the late afternoons, Nénette performs the routine that is most intriguing to her audience: She takes tea. First she unscrews the cover of a small plastic bottle, sips a bit of its contents, and carefully sets it down. Then she opens a container of yogurt, takes a spoonful or two, unscrews a second bottle, samples its contents, pours some of it into the yogurt container, and drinks the mixture. Does this daily ritual—an uncanny mimicry of human behavior—give her pleasure? We hope it does, but who is to know?

Amy Taubin

Nénette plays December 22–January 4 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.