Documentary explores what's behind an orangutan's sad eyes 

“Nenette” offers viewers the singular experience of spending 67 minutes in the company of a zoo orangutan as she goes about her daily humdrum of eating, drinking, napping and, perhaps voyeuristically, watching the people who have come to see her. While hampered by its inability to enter the head of its intelligent, strong-minded subject, this French documentary triumphs as a thoughtful look at how people view animals and at the dilemma of captivity.

Employing a style that resembles Frederick Wiseman’s observational naturalism but with a goofier, first-person element sometimes figuring in, filmmaker Nicolas Philibert presents the absorbing world of 40-year-old Nenette, the oldest and most popular animal in the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

After an opening close-up — saucer eyes, hairy hands, lips that a seemingly tipsy camera later renders cartoonish — draws viewers in, Philibert forms an impressionist picture of his subject via sights and sounds.

Images of Nenette and fellow orangutans combine with voices of visitors and keepers to tell the story of this reddish-haired ape and illustrate how her presence at the zoo affects humans.

Nenette was born in Borneo. She has survived three “husbands” and has had four offspring. She enjoys a bottle of tea daily and is on the pill (just in case).

She charms children. “She’s the same age as Daddy,” one remarks.

Grown-ups, too, attribute human qualities to her.

“She’s like a kept woman — a hairy one,” a keeper says.

Compared to Wiseman’s more event-packed and grand-scaled “Zoo,” or Philibert’s own “To Be and to Have,” which presented a year in the life of a country schoolteacher, “Nenette” is rather slight. And while Philibert welcomely avoids anthropomorphic silliness, Nenette proves a sometimes frustrating subject because, while her repeated close-ups suggest a psychological portrait, we cannot know what she is (or isn’t) thinking.

Yet the movie often sparkles. When Philibert captures how people project their own sensibilities onto Nenette, or how Nenette serves as a comforting presence for urbanites, he fascinatingly illustrates the emotional roles animals play in humans’ lives.

Additionally, while it doesn’t pass judgment on zoos — Nenette’s keepers seem a caring bunch and Nenette, having survived a life-threatening abscess, is living to old age — the film has a disquieting quality in this regard.

Through the sad-looking peepers of its star, it serves as a quietly provocative consideration of the condition of being caged.

Accompanying “Nenette” is “Night Falls on the Menagerie,” an 11-minute Philibert film featuring some non-orangutan zoo denizens on a typical day at dusk.



Three stars

With Nenette
Directed by Nicolas Philibert
Not rated
Running time 1 hour 18 minutes

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Anita Katz

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