Nicholas Philibert’s Nénette is a 70-minute film in which we constantly observe 40-year-old orangutan, Nénette, and her two orangutan companions, through the glass, in her captive habitat at a Paris zoo. Orangutans live to 30-35 years in the wild, so Nénette is quite old, but Philibert has us questioning, throughout the movie, if those extra years were worth the price of captivity.
Philibert puts us in the place of a visitor to the zoo, constantly gazing at but never interacting with Nénette through the glass. Nénette, for the most part, provides little entertainment, sitting still with a world-wearied expression on her face. Philibert fills the soundtrack with voiceovers of zoo visitors talking about Nénette, watching Nénette, pondering Nénette’s thoughts, and sometimes making absurd assumptions. At seventy minutes, the film feels rather long. We are desperate to see Nénette do something -anything – and in the absence of action, we make up a story about how Nénette must be feeling and thinking, just as the zoo visitors do.
Orangutans share many anatomical similarities to humans such as the hairless face and sunken eyes. But they also have a large lump below the neck; many visitors were fascinated by Nénette’s lump, which is not a breast, but is not comparable to any other part of human anatomy. Visitors gawk at the lump, as do we. The lump’s purpose is not explained until very near the end: it stores a large amount of air, which when appropriately compressed, allows orangutans to let out a very loud noise which can be heard from miles away, to warn other orangutans of danger.
We never hear Nénette make this loud cry; in captivity, she has no need to use it, the zookeeper reminds us. We learn that Nénette has had three mates, and has borne four babies, one of which still resides with her. A few years ago, when Nénette lost her third mate, the zookeepers decided to give her a break and not find her another mate; they keep her son with her for company. However, because they are uncertain of whether incest is forbidden in orangutan society, Nénette is on the birth control pill, which is slipped into her yogurt each day. They want to ensure there is no chance that Nénette will be impregnated by her son and they have no way to tell if she is yet menopausal: menstruation leaves no traces of blood in orangutans, we are told.
The film questions the ethics behind keeping animals captive and human selfishness in wanting to be able to observe these animals at all times. Yet it is interesting to use Nénette, an orangutan, as the subject for such an argument, as she has many human characteristics: we watch her unscrew the lid to a jug of tea and drink her tea with her yogurt, switching between the two as a human would. The zookeepers emphasize how orangutans – and Nénette – are very emotionally expressive and perceptive: you can tell Nénette’s feelings in her eyes. Yet orangutans are less communicative than other apes, like chimpanzees: orangutans have no capacity for speech or sounds aside from the one loud cry.
While we hear reference to the zookeepers’ relationships with Nénette, we never see their interactions together. This makes it ever-increasingly difficult to judge Nénette’s full situation and social environment for we only see her in her “natural” habitat with the other orangutans, and largely, during visiting hours. This, of course, is the point, as we are meant to be put in the shoes of the visitors. I found it disappointing, however, that with an opportunity to show and teach interesting things about orangutans in a film, the film gave us little information about Nénette, about orangutans, and about how humans form or fail to form relationships with the orangutans. This is a large missed opportunity.
Nénette is an interesting character but watching her sit calmly becomes monotonous after an hour, despite the interesting, if somewhat repetitive, commentary. Perhaps Philibert would have done better using the same material in a short rather than a feature length film. The point would be made, the scenes would be interesting, and you would leave the theatre wanting more rather than yawning just a little. That being said, this is a very well-made, very well-shot film: the small, enclosed environment never becomes tiresome. Some of the shots of Nénette are utterly gorgeous and fascinating and the audio voiceovers are well chosen and manage to tell a story. Nevertheless, it need not have been so long, and would likely have been more effective and poignant as a short film.