sat 20/07/2024

Nénette | reviews, news & interviews



The maker of Être et Avoir turns his camera on orang-utans in captivity

Nénette: 'Her face has such character. You understand where cartoons get their inspiration'

This is not the first starring role in cinema history for an orang-utan. That honour belongs to King Louie, the banana-clad jungle VIP in Disney’s 1967 version of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It’s not actually the second either, or even the third.

Students of the Primates on Film sub-genre will fondly recall Clyde, the orang-utan who hung out with Clint Eastwood so winningly in Every Which Way But Loose (1978) that the studio gave him another shot at the big time in Any Which Way You Can (1980). But unless there are gaps in my knowledge of this area (for which apologies), Nénette is probably the fourth time out for an orang-utan in the movies.

'Eastwood as you've never seen him before!' Watch the trailer for Every Which Way But Loose

Being a French documentary from Nicolas Philibert, who made Être et Avoir, this is a more contemplative, even philosophical account of the orang-utan’s lot. The eponymous Nénette is an elderly female who has lived in the Jardins des Plantes zoo on the Rive Gauche, not far from Notre Dame, for most of her life. Though born in the wild, she has spent the best part of her four decades - day after day, month after month, year after year - being stared at and snapped by humanity through a transparent screen of glass. In short, she already knows something of the film star’s lot. Philibert’s camera watches her for most of the film’s 70 minutes, occasionally cutting away to take a look at her son Tübo (pictured below, Nénette on the right) or other smaller apes swinging around the ropes and shelves which stand in for the treetops of Borneo.

As in Être et Avoir, his ruminative study of a small school in rural France, Philibert mostly absents himself from such narrative as there is. The cuts and fades are neutrally done, the sense of a story suspended. I watched it half assuming it might end with Nénette’s death – she has survived to a much greater age than she’d have reached back in the wild – but, no, there is nothing so dramatic. Although we learn her history from the disembodied voices of her various keepers – three mates who have all died, four births, her various illnesses - this is no biopic. If it can be seen as anything so assertive, it's more of a polemic about the transaction between man and ape. Are our genetic cousins, whose evolutionary inferiority has allowed us to put them in cages, capable of experiencing something of what we go through as humans?

NENETTE_5882It’s a natural instinct of the people gawping at Nénette – French, Italians, Dutch, Japanese, most unseen, a few reflected in the glass – to read familiar traits in the mobile features of her face: wisdom, boredom, above all depression. And you the viewer, stuck for over an hour in her company, can hardly avoid going down the same road. It is difficult not to anthropomorphise Nénette the way you do when watching the vacant apes draped across beds and sofas in the Big Brother house. (Outside the zoo, among the noises Philibert's microphone picks up is a street protest against video surveillance.)

It’s particularly easy with orang-utans in whose fingers and facial features we see our own DNA imprinted. An artist talks about how he enjoys drawing Nénette. “Her face has such character,” he says. "You understand where cartoons get their inspiration.” “She loves cameras,” says a young female keeper, as if Nénette is some kind of orange Norma Desmond. “But she’s accepted that the younger ones are the stars.”

Man has been at this for centuries. The species’ habit of walking upright explains its name – orang-utan is Malay for “man of the forest”. An early English explorer noted among other human traits a propensity for raping women and kidnapping girls. A legend in Borneo suggests that they can speak but keep quiet in order not to have to work. And the fact is that they are able to ape our behaviour. Nénette steals her keeper’s lipstick and applies it to her face. Other orang-utans mimic the swiping motion of the window cleaner or the kissing couple on the other side of the glass. One was caught blowing kisses at a redhead girl but ignoring her brunette friend.

As the film continues its remorseless, event-free journey, it mimics the stasis of a caged animal’s existence

A voiceover suggests that this is some kind of lifelong performance from Nénette. “She is drained by curiosity. She has seen all of us already. The quality of her idleness makes me think of an exercise in an acting class. The space is yours. She’s not going to do anything to amaze us. She’s fully there, that’s all.” (In France, they have a higher quality of zoo-goer.)

As the film continues its remorseless, event-free journey, it mimics the stasis of a caged animal’s existence. But whatever depths of existential misery we are inclined to read into those sad-looking eyes, it’s pure fantasy. Apparently orang-utans in the jungle stare into space for hours at a time too. “I’ve spent my whole career working with her,” says a keeper who has known her for 35 years. “That’s not sadness. Orang-utans aren’t easy to understand.” Indeed, so opaque are they that no one knows if the ancient Nénette is still menstruating. As she’s living with her son, and they aren’t sure if incest is taboo among orang-utans, they’ve put her on the pill, inserted discreetly into her daily yoghurt.

Where this strangely watchable meditation will all end is finally answered with a yoghurt pot and a daily dose of sweet tea. Nénette sits with a row of bottles before her, picks one up, skilfully unscrews the lid and drinks. On a whim she decides to decant some tea into the yoghurt pot and, spilling it on her leg, flinches. To avoid another accident, she places the open bottle delicately back where it was. Whether any of this makes her more human is up to the viewer to decide.

Watch the trailer for Nénette

It is difficult not to anthropomorphise Nénette the way you do when watching the vacant apes in the Big Brother house

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Hooray for Nenette, la femme plus belle de Paris! 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 how YOU can make a difference! Orangutan Outreach Reach out and save the orangutans!

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