Being and nothingness
Nénette, documentary, not rated, in French with subtitles, CCA Cinematheque, 3 chiles
I“There must be times when she can stand this no longer,” an unidentified voice says off-camera. “Her condition — it’s in the realm of doing nothing. It makes you think, Is it that enviable, having nothing to do?”
Born in 1969 in Borneo and transferred to the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris a few years later, “she” is Nénette, the subject of documentarian Nicolas Philibert’s ( To Be and To Have, In the Land of the Deaf ) quiet study of an orangutan whose star at the zoo is fading in tandem with her health and sense of joie de vivre. Nénette’s cracked, weathered hands and near-expressionless face hint at a majestic animal approaching the end of a relatively long and uncommon life played out behind glass and steel for the benefit of a few hundred-thousand ogling human visitors each year (orangutans live an average of 30 to 35 years in the wild, according to the film). Philibert spares no claustrophobic camera angle in his attempt to draw the viewer into Nénette’s increasingly dreary — and misunderstood — existence.
That isn’t to say this primate’s life has been altogether uneventful. “She’s had three husbands and wore them all out,” a faceless zoo employee informs us. Nénette has also given birth to four children. One of her sons, Tübo, lives with her, and to ensure that there are no unintended incestuous offspring, Nénette gets the occasional birth control pill hidden in her yogurt, served with tea in the afternoon.
In scene after scene, Philibert keeps his camera static (sometimes for awkwardly long periods), focused intently on Nénette and her spare surroundings. In the film, the uniformly unidentified humans are heard rather than seen, save for a few reflections in Nénette’s glass enclosure, which present a kaleidoscopic view of what she
has witnessed with a mix of indifference, curiosity, and contempt for the better part of her life: people on the outside looking in, pointing, gasping, laughing, passing judgment, attaching human traits to an animal whose last chapter will play out in isolation within a facsimile natural habitat created mainly for people’s amusement at a safe distance. Earlier in her zoo “career,” Nénette was something of a diva. “The media likes younger apes,” we’re told. “They’re more comical.” The camera loved her. She loved the camera back, and she loved the camera lights even more. She bathed in the warmth emanating from those light bulbs, perhaps because the feeling reminded her of another place and time.
To hear Nénette’s handlers tell it, this aging ape suffers more from physical ailments now than from emotional or instinctual detachment (the surgical removal of an abscess years earlier is blamed for most of her malaise). You may glean a sense of insurmountable boredom and sadness in her expressions and movements, but Nénette’s handlers will assure you that, in the undisturbed rain forest, orangutans love to sit still and stare into the abyss. However, in Borneo, where poaching, illegal logging, and palmoil production continue to shrink the orangutan’s chance of survival, sitting still isn’t really a viable option anymore.
Nénette is essentially a victim of her own rarity, for which she has humans to thank. “If there were more of her kind around,” to paraphrase one voice, “she’d probably still be in the jungle.” Philibert steers clear of heated wildlife-conservation politics, but some background on the orangutan’s endangered status would have done wonders to present Nénette as more inherently complex than a hairy recreational attraction with age-related issues. “The thickness of the glass is in proportion to our fear of getting closer [to Nénette],” a zoo employee says. Interestingly, Philibert structures most of the film’s off-screen commentary in a manner that brings audiences closer to their insecurities about themselves. “I think she’s depressed, really depressed,” one woman whispers worriedly. “Maybe her husband is already dead.” Another wonders, “She’s bored, right? Maybe she misses the country she comes from; I miss mine, too.” Of her restricted living space, one man says, “Not much room.” His friend responds, “Well, rents are high in Paris.”
Though opinions on the confinement of animals vary, Philibert’s study of Nénette subtly offers up a universal truth: zoos are marvelous microcosms of human psychological transference. What we see in ourselves is often easier to swallow when we point it out in something or someone else, especially when there are no immediate effects on our health or happiness.
Unfortunately, people have done this with Nénette so often that it appears to have taken a toll. “People drain her,” one of the film’s narrators reminds us. “She has been drained by our curiosity.” So, too, has her species.
The abyss stares back at you: Nénette