In February 2010, the radio program This American Life aired an installment about a chimpanzee named Lucy who had been “conditioned” to captivity during the 1970s. The chronicle incorporated many twists and emotional layers that kept it variegated, but one consistent element that lent it a special degree of interest was the recurring sense of the primate’s behavioral proximity to Homo sapiens -- bizarre but fascinating anecdotes that included Lucy doing everything from demonstrating sexual arousal while viewing Playgirl magazine to extending a leaf to her human owners, as a sort of olive branch peace offering following a series of challenges.
It would be relatively facile for a documentary film to knock viewers out with these sorts of mesmerizing insights about apes. We’ve had some of this already in the past decade, particularly with an exceptional sequence in Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond (2004). But that was only a two- or three-minute clip -- and it felt so superior to the surrounding material that it practically demanded its own film. One can imagine Frenchman Nicolas Philibert, the gifted creator of To Be and to Have (so rich with its behavioral observation of primary school students), as being born to do such a documentary. For this reason, the most fascinating aspect of Nenette, Philibert’s chronicle of a 40-year-old female orangutan who resides in Paris’ Jardin des Plantes zoo, is its reluctance to place strong emphasis on details that will humanize its subject and underscore the thinness of the evolutionary divide.
That isn’t necessarily a flaw in the film’s execution, but an indication that Philibert’s concerns lie elsewhere; he uses Nenette herself as a springboard for broader thematic investigations. One of the foremost is inscrutability -- our inability to ever fully grasp what is happening within the ape or her kin. We get an opening close-up of the orangutan’s deep-set, opaque black eyes taking in everything; however, her own level of comprehension, and any resultant emotions, remains indecipherable for the next 67 minutes. Philibert reinforces this sense (and defeats any emotional readings of Nenette that we naively believe we may have) by placing a zoologist on the soundtrack who insists that orangutans don’t register facial emotions.
The documentary’s other preoccupation (hence the close-ups of eyes) is that of voyeurism; the writer-director seems to be questioning the process of observation itself, especially as it transpires across the barrier between humans and primates. That explains Philibert’s complete reluctance to place any zoo-goers or workers onscreen, shy of a few scattered reflections in the glass. He isn’t interested in our observance of them; he wants to set up a meditative trance between the audience and the orangutans, and pose the perhaps unassailable question of what it means to study a subject visually within a film, and how we (as humans) tend to filter visual perceptions of apes through our own very specific systems of meaning. One also gets the impression that Philibert wants to reinforce our own sense of the orangutans’ captivity by limiting our own kinesthetic freedom within the picture itself -- confining us to a series of shots that give us little to no feel for the surrounding world at the zoo.
All of this has the intended effect of placing a much greater demand on the viewer’s shoulders -- for concentration, reflection, and scrutiny. It also strikes one as wildly ambitious; this is one of the most challenging documentaries to achieve mainstream release in recent years. Philibert may not achieve his goals in this context 100 percent of the time, but he sets the bar high enough, and clears it often enough, that the results are seldom less than compelling.
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- Released: 2010
- Review: In February 2010, the radio program This American Life aired an installment about a chimpanzee named Lucy who had been “conditioned” to captivity during the 1970s. The chronicle incorporated many twists and emotional layers that kept it variegated, but one… (more)