Nenette (Kino International, NR)

If, like me, you find zoos creepy to begin with, you may find this film seriously disturbing in a Twilight Zone sort of way, which ultimately is a testimony to its power.

 
 
 
 
 
Nenette, a 40-year-old with long red hair and deep expressive eyes, was born on the isle of Borneo in 1959 and came to France in 1972. She has had four children with three men and one of the kids, Tübo, still lives with her. Nicolas Philibert’s film, Nenette, trains its camera mercilessly on its star subject for its entire 70-minute running time, as she sleeps, eats, scratches, plays with excelsior and performs other ape-appropriate activities. Nenette, you see, is an orangutan who has lived most of her life in a zoo, the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
 
Philibert’s camera is not absolutely still but it never strays far from Nenette, Tübo and their confined living quarters. Most of what we see is them doing not very much at all. Of course given their circumstances we could hardly expect anything else and this immediately raises questions about the morality of keeping creatures so similar to ourselves (orangutans share 97 percent of their DNA with humans) in captivity.
 
Inasmuch as the film has dialogue it is supplied by visitors who come to stare at Nenette and Tübo (that is surely a primary purpose of zoos, after all) and various more rehearsed voices including a keeper who fills us in on some of Nenette’s back story (she recently survived a serious abscess; she has her favorites among the zoo’s employees). People are only seen, however, as reflections in the glass separating Nenette from her public, a choice that creates some interesting visuals and suggests that Nenette is watching her audience as much as they are watching her.
One of the appeals of visiting the monkey house is that it’s easy to anthropomorphize the inhabitants with their almost human facial expressions and opposable thumbs. As orangutans been known to rape human females it would seem that recognition of the similarity between the species is mutual. The temptation to project all kinds of emotions onto these creatures (Does that expression denote sadness at the loss of her children? Does she miss her home country? Are those scratches on the wall the product of boredom or frustration?) is almost irresistible particularly since there’s nothing to stop us. It’s not like the apes are going to cross that glass barrier and correct our interpretations, so they’re the perfect surface upon which to project whatever is in your head. Philibert’s deliberately ambiguous film is likely to have a similar effect on viewers; whatever conclusions you draw from it will depend a great on what you bring to the experience. If, like me, you find zoos creepy to begin with, you may find this film seriously disturbing in a Twilight Zone sort of way, which ultimately is a testimony to its power.
 
Nenette is most interesting when the camera simply observes Nenette and Tübo do whatever they are doing without the intrusion of the inane chatter of zoo visitors (“It’s all hairy!” “Look at the muscles on his arms!”) or voiceovers telling us what previous Europeans had to say about apes in the wild or what a great life Nenette enjoys (although there is one bombshell dropped near the end of the film which is definitely worth waiting for). The occasional intrusions of a mildly avant-garde soundtrack plus one extremely sentimental folk song further disrupt the viewing experience as if the director (who also served as co-cinematographer and co-editor) lost his courage in the edit room and decided he could not trust audience members to form their own conclusions about what they were seeing.
 
Night Falls on the Menagerie, a short (11 min.) film by Philibert, is being shown with Nenette. Night Falls adheres much more closely to the direct cinema style, allowing the viewer to observe the animals after zoo visitors have left for the day. It’s beautifully shot and the absence of human intrusion, beyond the obvious fact that someone chose where to point the camera and edited the resulting footage into a film, produces an almost meditative quality that provides the perfect lead-in to Nenette. | Sarah Boslaugh

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