February 2, 2011 5:09 p.m.
KPBSfilm critic Beth Accomando reviews the French documentary "Nenette."
Related Story: Review: 'Nenette'
KPBS-FM Radio Film Review: "Nenette"
By Beth Accomando
Air date: February 3, 2011
Nenette is a 40-year-old orangutan living in a Paris zoo. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews a documentary portrait of this great ape.
NENETTE (ba).wav SOQ 4:01 (music out at 5:20)
(Tag:) "Nenette" opens tomorrow (Friday) at Landmark's Ken Cinema. You can find more of Beth's reviews on K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.
"Nenette" opens in silence with an extreme close up of a face and hands. They look very human but not quite. We soon realize this is the weathered face of an old orangutan. Then the silence is broken by children's voices.
CLIP Bonjour Nenette, sa va?
Nenette is a star attraction at the Jardin des Plantes Exotiques in Paris. She was born in the forests of Borneo in 1969 and brought to the French zoo at the age of three.
CLIP: Ah from Borneo.
Documentary filmmaker Nicolas Philibert decided to turn his lens on this grand lady and has crafted a film that is as much about the great ape as it is about the people that come to visit her. Philibert places his camera outside Nenette's enclosure. Then he simply observes and listens. He observes Nenette and listens to all the people who stop by to see her. One man recounts how Nenette had three mates over the decades and wore them all out.
CLIP Three hubbies
He adds that Nenette has been put on the pill so she doesn't have babies with her son who shares the enclosure with her. One woman confides her concerns over Nenette's lack of a new mate.
She speculates that it would be more fun if there was a girl for the son and a male orangutan for Nenette. The woman says Nenette looks depressed and quietly adds, "I would be as sad as she if I was alone with my son." Then she tries to communicate with the ole girl to show her solidarity.
CLIP Woman makes ape sounds
As we hear these people talk they consistently try to give human emotions to Nenette. Tanya Howard is a zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo. She says it's very easy for people to put human emotions on these great apes.
TANYA HOWARD: They identify with orangutans and can see correlations with human behavior and great ape behavior and maternal care is something you see a lot of times and even the problem solving we give them enrichment but we'll give them like pine cones that has like peanut butter melted into it and then frozen and some animals will take sticks and very delicately take all the peanut butter out of the pine cone center or others will just sit there and just break it with their hands.
San Diegans are lucky to have an orangutan exhibit that was renovated in 2002 to increase space, add more sway polls, and make it a mixed species exhibit.
Nenette, however, lives in a much more confining environment. In the documentary, Philibert does not overtly criticize the ape's living conditions but we can't help but feel sorry for the poor girl who sits idly for hours. Someone notes that she's lucky to be pampered with yogurt and tea breaks.
CLIP Tea time!
But just as people read what they want onto Nenette, viewers are likely to read what they want onto Philibert's film. Some will see it as a criticism of zoos and the confinement of wild animals. Others will view it as a loving portrait of a favorite zoo animal.
At just over an hour, Philibert's film still feels long considering his particular approach and his rather languid subject. Philibert's camera does find some visually lovely moments. At one point we see Nenette and the reflection of all the people passing in front of her. This gives us a sense of what Nenette's day must be like people watching.
One visitor observes Nenette's stillness and admires the quality of her "idleness." He says it's like she's performing an acting exercise he describes as "the space is yours…"
CLIP Acting exercise
He speculates that she is drained by our curiosity but fills her space with astounding virtuosity. As I watched the film I thought of an odd analogy. Nenette is like Garbo - she's a blank slate that people read anything into and are endlessly fascinated by. If you love sitting and watching animals at the zoo, you'll want to visit Nenette and see what you come away with
For KPBS News, I'm Beth Accomando.