The most popular resident of the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and perhaps the most beloved inhabitant of the entire Paris Zoo, Nénette is a 40-year-old orangutan with a surprising amount of star power. In this documentary about the enigmatic primate, children watch her and giggle, adults conjecture about her mood, a zookeeper explains how it took her six years for her to form a bond with the aloof ape and people wrestle with what it is that makes this monkey so magical. Box office prospect for Nénette are likely as modest as the film's production values, but it's a wonderfully moving meditation on the capacity of animals to inspire our imaginations and something applicable to educational markets as well as regular documentary audiences.
It's said people come to visit Nénette everyday, a Zoo visitor comments, "as if visiting a family member in prison." Perhaps her captivity adds to her suggestive qualities, but one only needs to observe her to see the way she evokes something distinct and indescribable. A small child says, "she looks strangely like a man" and it's not simply the primate-human relation the child is invoking. Guests name her mood, laugh at her size (she's quite large), comment on her long red hair and lovingly sing to her from their side of the glass. "She's depressed." "She's funny." "She must be so bored living with her son." The ideas of the onlookers fill in for her silence.
A Zoo resident for 37 of her 40 years, she's enjoyed a comfortable circumstance in the Menagerie, with regular meals and 4:30 teatimes, but she's also endured operations, injuries, the birth of four babies (three of which live elsewhere) and the loss of three husbands. She's exceeded her expected age by five years and her longevity is unlikely in the wild. One wonders what her personality might have been like in the absence of the audience that passes her during Zoo hours. A man visiting the ape exhibit to sketch describes a younger ape that would flirt with the female visitors and dismiss brunettes with a wave (he preferred the blondes). We hear that the ‘ape of the moment' goes in cycles, but those stories seem like a flash in the pan compared to the enduring qualities of the elder in the cage.
Director Nicolas Philibert keeps his camera poised on the Menagerie. The voices of the visitors, the keepers who have worked with the apes and the children who watch in wonder are all disembodied; this is Philibert's sole directorial power stroke. The result is a sense that we're interfacing with the imaginations Nénette inspires, and there are many. How many were provoked by the presence of the camera is hard to say and some Zoo visitors are presumptuous and quick to excite, but Nénette‘s aloof and sweet demeanor demonstrates no interest in intriguing anyone; her impassiveness is glamorous. In her ambiguous emotional state the world feels at liberty to project their feelings on Nénette and wonder, and by keeping us from seeing the faces of the onlookers Philibert allows us to do the same.
Director: Nicolas Philibert
Producer: Serge Lalou
Genre: Documentary; French-, Japanese-, Italian-, Russian-languages, subtitled
Running time: 67 min
Release date: December 22 NY, January 28 SF