Monkey See: The Life of an Orangutan in Nenette

Stare at Borneo native Nénette, a 41-year-old orangutan who’s lived at the zoo in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes since 1972, long enough, and she begins to resemble another stolid, thick-set immigrant to France: Gertrude Stein. Documentarian Nicolas Philibert, whose long, observational takes made even the conjugation of auxiliary verbs fascinating in his country-school portrait, To Be and to Have (2002), invites such projections, his camera trained almost exclusively on the russet-haired simian for 70 minutes (the three other orangutans who share her cage, including her son, receive only cameos). Though shunning anthropomorphic cutes, Philibert’s film doesn’t always avoid the listlessness shared by his star, who has impassively looked out at spectators from captivity nearly her entire life. Off-screen voices—kids who marvel, “It looks strangely like a man,” zoo-keepers who discuss the particulars of Nénette’s psychology, an actor who soliloquizes on the toll of her boredom—emphasize our primate ancestry, as does observing Nénette enjoying her daily yogurt break, opposable thumb guiding the spoon before she devours the plastic container. Watching Nénette watch those who gape at her is an intriguing, multi-layered exercise of voyeurism, but one that wanes after our gaze is demanded for too long.

 
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