Written by:
Beverly Berning
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A documentary by Nicholas Philibert

Opens Friday, January 28, in San Francisco Bay Area theaters


The great apes are a fascinating species. So like our own, the resemblance captivates us. How could we not think for a moment that there is a kinship between us, that somewhere back in time we shared the same ancestors? It is this resemblance that helps sustain us through the 67 minutes we are asked to spend watching “Nénette,” a documentary portrait of a 40-year-old orangutan who has spent most of her life behind bars at the Paris zoo inside Les Jardins des Plantes.

And watching Nénette is pretty much all we do, although we are blessed with audio commentary now and again to keep us from nodding off as much as Nénette does during her close-ups. The audio consists of zoo patrons, many of them young children, who randomly comment on Nénette’s appearance as they observe her from behind a thick glass window, as well as Nénette’s own zoo guardians, who know her as well as any human could, and who share their stories of Nénette’s life at the zoo-how she came to be there (she arrived from Borneo at around the age of two); her sexual life (she had four children and survived three mates); and her career as a zoo denizen (the oldest orangutan in captivity, Nénette is somewhat of a star among zoo apes, even receiving daily visits from some of her fans.)

There is also some very interesting commentary on the history of the Borneo orangutan that reminds us of the 18th century’s fascination with exotic animals, and the subsequent emergence of zoos to satiate the public’s curiosity to see these creatures up close. When western man first encountered these hairy orange apes, they admired their human-like qualities, and the seeming intelligence in their eyes, even as they feared the animal’s savage strength. (Just recall the brutal killings in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”) For reasons I still can’t explain, the orangutan’s facial features seem to resemble a human’s more than a gorilla’s pronounced brow; in any case, the orangutan’s more placid demeanor, and slow, studied movements seem to invite more anthropomorphizing than other primates. They don’t seem as bullish as gorillas, or as childish as chimps. As a lover of all primates, that was my feeling; Nénette entranced me. I could watch her forever.

Or at least for an hour, and that’s all the attention demanded of us in this quiet, minimalist feature. We just watch Nénette, looking forlorn and bored in her concrete enclosure. Sometimes, her grandson comes by to spark things up, and the proximity of her zoo family, which also includes her youngest son Tubo and her daughter-in-law, a young female named Theodora, give us some reassurance that Nénette’s narrow frame of existence is not completely without pleasure. Still, as we watch this old lady make her straw bed and unscrew her jars of tea with the agility of an eight-year-old child, we can’t help but wonder what she is thinking, or even wonder what it means to be alive. Nénette certainly has all the creature comforts many could hope for, and has lived an extremely long life for an orangutan. But there is something about Nénette, and something about this film’s portrait of her, that suggests a melancholic reminder of lost time, of the end of things, whether it be the jungles of Borneo, the extinction of our wildlife, or just the physical decline of an aging orangutan. Over the course of our hour-long rumination on the life of this animal, Nénette begins to cast a sad sheen over our thoughts; it’s like an ode to dying.

The creator of this meditative film is Nicholas Philibert, a beloved documentary filmmaker in France who is best known in the U.S. for his 2002 documentary about the life of an elementary school teacher in a rural classroom, “To Be and To Have” (“Etre et avoir“). Philibert’s film is a heartfelt and wondrously respectful homage to this magnificent species. We should thank him for making our acquaintance with Nénette, and for allowing future generations to do the same.

Beverly Berning


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