“Apparently, some people come to see Nénette every day, as if coming to see a brother, a sister or a relative in prison.” The speaker remains off screen, as does most everyone who offers opinions on the 40-year-old orangutan at the center of Nénette. As each human comments or wonders or tries to get her attention, the ape appears in various apparent moods, her eyes watchful or impassive, her huge figure lying limp or engaged in vigorous activity—whether poking at a yogurt cup or pulling at a rope.
The view of Nénette changes slightly from scene to scene, as she changes position in her cell at Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, and as the camera adopts a few perspectives—all from the outside: down low to emulate children looking up, more straight on. Sometimes, an individual’s face is reflected in the glass of the cage, sometimes Nénette is joined in frame by a cellmate, say, her son Tübo, the camera moving slightly to keep up with her restricted action. And sometimes, the shot is so close that only a small part of her fills the frame: her fingers, her eyes, her long arm outstretched.
Throughout Nicolas Philibert’s extraordinary documentary, in so many looks at Nénette, she remains removed. Even when she looks back, her eyes seeming to confront the camera or seeming to glance in the direction of an off-screen speaker, you can’t know if this is the case. The film contemplates Nénette, but more pointedly, it contemplates views of her, how viewers construct stories, based on what they see (“She’s huge, a whale”) and also based on their own experiences (“I think she’s depressed, totally depressed. Maybe she misses her husband”), outside the cage.
As you become increasingly aware that your look is shaped by their looks, you are also increasingly aware of how you look more generally, how you shape stories, make assumptions, project experiences onto others—how your view of the world is limited. As the contrast between your experience and Nénette’s is increasingly pronounced—she is so constrained and also so monumental, so silent and so apparently impassive—she offers observers continual opportunities to imagine her and express themselves.
Some of these observers offer details. One caretaker notes, “Nénette can be tricky and above all, she’s old, so she needs time to be comfortable or simply to forge a bond with people.” As this and another caretaker named Gérard recall their time with the orangutan, they repeatedly remark on her resistance to their invitations for her to “bond.” Asked whether he can read her moods, Gérard interprets what seems her present one: “That’s not sadness,” he intones, “Orangutans aren’t easy to understand, they express less than chimpanzees. They have no oral expression, they don’t cry out, you never hear a thing.”
His voice sounds over her silent image as she looks unspeakably sad, or maybe just bored, as Gérard’s questioner has suggested. But because so many other voices explain her over the course of the film, you’re inclined not to guess. Rather, you become something like a mirror image of the subject so relentlessly dissected: as Nénette is described, she looks out, her eyes roaming or lost, her mind elsewhere.
And then, of course, you pause too, for as you are reminded by Gérard, her thought is unexpressed by means we might comprehend. It may or may not be the case that the lack of vocalization means lack of intent or feeling. But this is the point: you can’t know. So, even as Gérard goes on to imagine her being “drained by curiosity,” by the incessant gazes of visitors, you can only impose your own ideas. Certainly, as one viewer points out, “There are marks too on the wall, scratches of annoyance or in the case of a surge of energy,” you’re inclined to feel worried for Nénette. How can she live under such conditions, for nearly four decades? “There must be times,” asserts Gérard, “When she can no longer stand this state, her condition. It’s the realm of doing nothing. She spends her life doing nothing. And all of a sudden, it makes you wonder is it really that enviable to have nothing to do?”
All of a sudden?
Eventually, Gérard’s musings extend beyond Nénette’s state of mind, to take in his and other observers’ responsibility. “Can we avoid imagining for her what she is thinking? We do it all the time. I keep telling myself that she could be, I don’t know, she could be saying, “Can’t they give me a break? When are they going to leave me alone?’” As she lives out what he calls “a life in captivity,” her viewers maintain their sense of difference. For even as you might project your feelings onto her, you must insist on her otherness. To be too like her would be too vexing.
“There’s the thickness of the glass, too,” Gérard adds. “It’s in proportion to our fear of getting closer, which could be to our disadvantage.” He might mean the threat posed by her strength and unpredictable responses. But you might understand him differently. And now you know—or think you know—the film is less about Nénette than it is about you.