Pity the Focus Features marketing team behind Babies, a near-wordless French production directed by Thomas Balmès that follows four babies from disparate parts of the world from birth to the dawn of self-awareness. Surprisingly, the doc isn’t as unbearable as that might sound: The HD images Balmès captures, breathtaking landscapes in Namibia and Mongolia shot from a tripod, visually cast the infants in the greater context of their surroundings. The director’s attention to lighting and composition is painterly, the babies perfectly framed. But the result is a cinematic coffee-table book set to music and ambient sound, an aesthetic exercise that gets at no deeper truth than “babies are basically alike no matter the culture.”
Which isn’t to say Balmès and his producer Alain Chabat, who came up with the idea for his production company Chez Wam, didn’t search far and wide to find happy, loving heterosexual couples about to give birth. The stars of the film—Ponijao (from Namibia), Mari (Japan), Hattie (U.S.A.), and Bayarjargal (Mongolia)—represent different socio-economic strata and ways of life. Ponijao and Bayarjargal, growing up in impoverished and rural but non-hectic environments, serve as an easy contrast to Mari and Hattie, whose urban Tokyo and San Francisco existences are both richer and filled with information overload. Perhaps too easy. Unlike Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, a wordless film about food manufacturing that manages to make agri-business riveting, Balmès isn’t serving up any surprises. The babies are born, they nurse, they play, they bathe, they sleep, they learn to walk and talk. Every once in awhile a scene sticks out, like when a rooster walks across Bayar’s bed, or when Ponijao’s mom licks and grooms her daughter like a mother cat, deftly trims her hair with a dull knife.
But mostly Balmès chooses to merely confirm our expectations. Japanese playgroups are so Hello Kitty happy they’re scary. The San Francisco mom discusses SIDS with a nurse, reads a book on parenting. (Later when Hattie slaps her in the face she even brandishes a children’s book titled No Hitting.) The fly-ridden Namibian kids frolic in a lake while Hattie and her mom swim in an inflatable pool. Mari and her parents visit the Tokyo zoo. Ponijao and Bayar live side by side with the animals. Hattie peels a banana while Ponijao helps skin dinner. Babies is practically a paint-by-numbers story in itself.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the few laughs (like Bayar trying to figure out how to pet a cat, or Ponijao looking like a subway sleeper attempting to stay awake while nodding off, or Mari throwing a supermodel-worthy diva fit over a toy she becomes frustrated with), the predictability would soon overwhelm. Even if no babies were harmed in the making of this film, when Hattie makes a mad rush for the door once her hippy-dippy playgroup starts singing an ode to Mother Earth, we can truly feel her pain.