Monday, December 20, 2010

Nicolas Philibert's sad, fascinating NÉNETTE Up-close and personal with a very old soul

That 400-pound gorilla in the room? It's Nénette, she's an orangutan, and the room is a cage in the famous Paris zoo, Jardin de Plantes Exotiques. TrustMovies is not actually all that sure about her weight: It may be only 300 pounds, perhaps less. But she is by far the best ape-on-film since "Jenny" in last year's Creation, and she easily carries NÉNETTE -- the film that bears her name -- proving a subject of unending interest and delight. Made by the man, Nicolas Philibert (shown below), who some years back gave us one of the best films about children and schools (To Be and to Have), the movie quite cleverly leads us into the life of this 40-year-old Parisian.

Lasting but 70 minutes, Philibert's film begins with humans beings -- children, adults, the filmmaker and zoo-keeping staff -- simply observing Nénette. "I can't touch her," one staff member notes, as they talk about her red hair. "In Egypt, they used to kill redheads before birth," someone says (the subtitles translate it thus, but surely they mean "at birth" or soon after). All the while, the camera observes  the orangutan. This rather sideways approach works wonderfuly in easing us into the life of the ape. With each new and often very odd fact, together with what we see Nénette doing, we're further hooked.

In all her long and sometimes difficult history at the zoo, Nénette has only liked  two of her keepers, one of whom took eight years to forge his bond. While the children's take on this ape is often hilarious, at times the kids are so noisy and intrusive that you dearly hope her cage is soundproof. The movie educates us about her species, as well, as we watch the ape in action. (Seeing her cover herself with a sheet like good Muslim woman provides one of the movie's many charming moments.) After having her first baby, with the accompanying televisions camera, Nénette eventually turned from hiding from the cameras to "acting" for them."

We learn from the head keeper everything from the orangutan's lack of general ability to make noise (and how the large pouch under the neck enables them to make certain sounds) to their toilet habits.  Nénette has gone through three husbands, outlasting them all. Now, she has only her youngest son Tubo, and the staff  fears the possibility of incest, not knowing for certain how the orangutan society reacts to this. So they have put the ape on "the pill," which is given to her in her daily yogurt.  "What flavor?" asks a journalist.

Nenette's life, finally, is compared to that of an acting class, in which the subject is told "Just be there and let us watch you. This is a difficult thing to handle."  It's difficult to view Nénette and not feel, at last, that you are watching a life in captivity -- a kind of slavery, if you will. Seeing her mix her juice with her yogurt at the end of the film is one of the saddest images I've seen in a documentary.

Also on the program is Nick Park's five-minute claymation short CREATURE COMFORTS (made in 1989) in which a journalist interviews zoo animals who talk (in various cleverly-concocted accents) of their experiences.  Both films, I believe, are very anti-zoo: Nénette quietly and gradually, Creatures Comforts, obviously and humorously. The double bill (Nénette is being released via Kino International) opens in New York City at Film Forum this Wednesday, December 22, for a two-week run. Check screening dates and times here.

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