Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Who's Watching Whom?

Directed by Nicholas Philibert
Opens December 22, 2010 at Film Forum
Released by Kino International

Her tiny eyes are set too close together, her thick strands of matted red hair cover her whole body, and her gaze is both wizened and weary. She’s Nénette, the orangutan at Paris’ Jardin des Plantes Exotiques Zoo, who arrived from Borneo 37 years ago at age three (or four). She’s also the subject of Nicholas Philibert’s amusingly meandering eponymous documentary.

Over the past two decades, Philibert has made documentaries as diverse as Louvre City, In the Land of the Deaf, To Be and to Have and Back to Normandy. In Nénette, Philibert films this “senior citizen” in the orangutan cage, which she shares with three others, including her son. Unlike the chimpanzees, who are a hoot to watch—playing for their receptive audience of zoo visitors—the orangutans are quieter and, in Nénette’s case at least, contemplative.

We never see any people, and we never hear the orangutans. Philibert keeps his camera entirely on the animals’ cage, where Nénette and the others sleep, eat, swing, climb or—most often—simply watch; the visitors whose chatter we hear (in English, French, Italian, even Flemish) show their insight, ignorance or imaginativeness when commenting on the fascinating human-like orangutans. There’s often a reflection of the visitors on the glass separating Nénette from the outside world, which is quite the subtle comment on who’s watching whom.

Philibert was originally going to make a 15-minute short about Nénette but smartly decided to extend it to feature length, because watching her and the others eat, sleep, climb, swing or stare makes 50 more minutes of sheer bliss. He also shrewdly varies his soundtrack, as the cheerful children’s chatter blends with comments from Nénette’s keepers old and new, and their talk holds our interest throughout. One keeper mentions that they often wonder what (or if) she’s thinking while she watches the human panorama on display in front of her. Also discussed is the decision to give her birth control pills, ground into her yogurt, to prevent a child if she and her son have an incestuous liaison. It’s also casually mentioned that, however adorable she seems to visitors, if her glass barrier breaks, “run for your lives.”

Finally, an old Borneo legend is recounted that orangutans can speak but would rather remain silent, so they don’t have to work. That bon mot is Nénette (and Nénette) in a nutshell: we enjoy watching these caged animals, but they are surely watching us also.

The essential absurdity about zoos is brought to hilarious life in Creature Comforts, Nick Park’s claymation short from 1989 that’s being shown before Nénette at Film Forum. Interviews with animals in the London zoo are pointedly dead-on about how they feel about being caged for our amusement. My favorites are the polar bear family, with the grumbling Brazilian leopard a close second.

1 comment:

redapes said...

Thanks for reviewing Nenette, la femme plus belle de Paris!

Nenette is an ambassador for her wild cousins. Orangutans are critically endangered in the wild because of rapid deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations in Borneo and Sumatra. If nothing is done to protect them, they will be extinct in just a few years.

Visit the Orangutan Outreach website to learn more...

Orangutan Outreach
Reach out and save the orangutans!