Directed by Nicolas Philibert
Nénette begins by confronting the audience with a familiar gaze: it’s not human, but we are still almost immediately drawn in, struck by pathos for something like but unlike ourselves. The camera never leaves the orangutan cage located at the Paris Menagerie. Voice-overs from various authorities and backgrounds, offering multiple perspectives on the titular, matriarchal Nénette, create a unique panorama of humanity’s complex relationship with other primates. Illuminating and invigorating, the film does not stick with dry academics, not does it tackle a facile environmental message.
Some of the most theoretically interesting segments involve recordings of the public. These auditory overlays are at times sincere, crass, aggravating, disturbing, distanced and endearing. At worst these portions are overused, but they do serve to create an atmosphere and unique sense of perspective. This is all part of the daily life of the captive orangutan, an animal that is quiet, slow moving and devoted to observation these discussions are not simply background noise for the animal. To what extent they are absorbed remains ambiguous, but there is an awareness of being watched and even discussed. This is not like the cinema, where the audience is engaging with an unresponsive screen: the glass remains a barrier, but it is in constant flux, transformed by the gaze and awareness (as well as the lack thereof) of the figures on either side.
The film’s mood is calm, but is also consistently melancholic. There is a concern that Nénette is depressed and lonely. Her expression and body language is discussed extensively, to no precise conclusion. Having always been temperamental, she is not easy to decipher, even for those who have worked with her for decades. Is there a sense of loss associated with the animals being captive? Especially ones with a heightened awareness? These are animals that have enough complexity to baffle and confuse our conception of our natural knowledge. Though not totally unique in this regard, they seem to evade compartmentalization and seek to put into doubt our conception of the human race. Their modes of thinking, expression, feeling and even anatomy still remain so much of a mystery.
There are far more questions than answers in Nénette, even as it seems to bring to light so many spoken ideas, philosophies and feelings about the way the world and our minds work. There is so much beauty in the film, but beauty as an unfolding and unpredictable force that cannot be contained; the film works hard to deconstruct its own mythology. We are offered a powerful opportunity to challenge our perception and even our physiological identity. Nénette is a film that only allows for passivity in its quiet tone, and is a stylistically and conceptually inspiring work.