A caged view of humanity
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, February 25, 2011
In some ways, Nenette is a stereotypical elderly lady. She doesn't move much, opting instead to take naps or stare into space for long stretches; her sedentary lifestyle is no doubt to blame for her ample belly and bosom. She also has a tendency to smack her gums, while seemingly judging the young folks around her.
Nenette, however, is an orangutan living in the Paris zoo.
The animal's striking resemblance to a human is part of what makes Nicolas Philibert's documentary "Nenette" so evocative. Having been in captivity for 37 years, Nenette has outlived her three mates, and now she spends most of her day lying idly next to the glass staring at the public. There is the persistent sense that, although she is the star of the zoo, she doesn't belong there. She ought to be resting on her plastic-covered couch watching her programs or sitting on a rocking chair overlooking her yard.
The viewer has plenty of time to consider how similar orangutans are to humans. Even though we hear voices - the sounds of visitors passing by or a few interviews with the animal keepers - the camera focuses only on Nenette and the other apes in captivity. Humans are seen only as fuzzy reflections in the glass.
The animals, meanwhile, rub their eyes with fists the way a child might, they purse their lips, take a long look at their fingernails the way any woman does. Visitor comments also tend to focus on the animals's humanness. One woman says Nenette is as big as her mother, while another woman tells her kids, "She's 40 - just like Daddy." Still another zoogoer considers how despondent Nenette appears, just lying there and staring. "I bet she misses her home," the woman says. "I miss mine, too."
That woman is right; the red-haired orangutan does look depressed. At one point, a zookeeper discusses how difficult it is to gauge an orangutan's mood, which is a momentary relief, until the movie's spare soundtrack of slow, sad clarinet music resumes.
Long stretches of the movie are silent. The orangutans try to entertain themselves by throwing blankets on their heads, or they sit next to the window and rhythmically bang on the glass. If it's occasionally tedious to watch, it also reinforces how boring it must be for the animals, especially in light of their intelligence. One zookeeper reports having seen an orangutan fetch tea and a saucer, bring it to the table, unfold a napkin in its lap and wait for the beverage to cool before taking a sip.
The collection of images and tidbits of information raise interesting questions about keeping animals in captivity. Whether Nenette is perfectly content in her cage or is itching to get out, it's hard not to project our humanity on her and wish she could live out her days with a little dignity instead of being the object of so many gazes.
Contains mildly objectionable language. In French with English subtitles.