Even before my conversion to veganism, zoos depressed the hell out of me. It’s still not exactly the sad, captive eyes or conduciveness to sadism that haunt me quite so much as the cautionary metaphor to be found in listless creatures occupying artificial habitats; like a grotesquely futurist Tati satire with sprinkles of Sartre, the zoo is a utopia brimming with beings that want for nothing aside from the viciousness of natural order. If harmless voyeurism is, to be diplomatic, the essential motive behind the zoo, then its unexpected lesson might be that we are vitally defined by our private battles for survival—and that we are, ultimately, conditioned to thrive most contently in environments that deprive us of desires. Simply granting us our basic needs and individual whims might be the most pernicious kind of existential cruelty.
The friction between this truth and our curiosity in caged animals is part of what powered Nick Park’s Oscar-winning animated short Creature Comforts; the grievances of real British tenement dwellers were wittily rendered as those of anthropomorphized turtles, hares, and (most memorably) cougars, all of whom appeared to bemoan the walls that immediately surrounded them. Where that film, however, was an ironist’s diatribe, the success of Nicolas Philibert’s similarly themed documentary Nénette is ponderously literal. For a little over an hour we watch the title character, a 40-year-old orangutan who for decades was the main attraction at Paris’s Jardin des Plantes, languidly sprawling about the branches in her exhibit, gnawing and pawing at packages of yogurt and tufts of straw, and (seemingly) accepting the fascination of off-screen visitors with tired contempt. Philibert furthermore widens the gap that Park cultivated between his audio testimony and his illustrations, using the wide-eyed and contemplative testimony of human onlookers and orangutan experts (along with a few distracting flourishes of non-diegetic music) as a soundtrack to Nénette’s sleepy exploits. And the documentary becomes, eventually, less a study of a great ape than a quiet reminder of how zoos act as a reflective prism for our livelihood-oriented anxieties.
The film’s narrative elliptically presents a series of contexts through which we glean Nénette’s rather epic story. Her handlers nostalgically recount her birth in captivity, the difficulties of her feisty adolescence (she couldn’t even be touched without sedation until later in life), her inevitable encounters with an adoring global media, and the medical events that catalyzed her decline into docility. Each of these biographical anecdotes is paired with a bystander’s monologue that free-associates with her current state: one zoo-goer is reminded that “in [ancient] Egypt, they killed redheads after birth…because of the devil”; another becomes obsessed with Nénette’s lack of a mate (“You need someone, even at her age,” she whispers). The orangutan’s exaggerated humanoid behavior provokes fancy, philosophy, alarm. She becomes a noble mascot of endangerment, an impetus for an argument about gender politics, a slightly shaggy iteration of Shakespeare’s paragon of animals, and even, when younger orangutans threaten her Parisian spotlight, an icy if impotent Margo Channing.
Throughout, Philibert breaks from his verité credentials to photograph Nénette and her alpha son, Tübo, in a painstakingly varied assortment of camera angles; we see her bulbous lips flapping in close-up, her muscular limbs extending to unknowingly thumb the tip of the frame, and her pendulous breasts pressing into glass partitions just above us. (The film almost joking inverts the typical talking head concept into footage that is “all action, no content.”) But aside from occasional reflections of gawking school children or nearby ape habitats, we don’t get a clear sense of the borders of her world or what lies beyond. This visual isolation ensures our intimacy with Nénette and underscores the documentary’s most lucid and disconcerting argument—that mankind is the orangutan’s border. Our relentless gaze is the entirety of Nénette’s contact with the outside world, and our frontal lobe-sporting species is the apogee of the primate order. And yet this realization isn’t accompanied by a sensation of responsibility ruefully shirked; we feel instead exposed and vulnerable, stationed at the defiant outskirts of an organic community, waiting to see where nature will take us next.
Nénette thankfully doesn’t dote on its subject’s obvious sadness, though it occasionally yields to an undercurrent of heavy-handed sympathy; in one scene, the orangutan absent-mindedly licks the edge of her cubicle while plaintive mariachi music plays and metal doors in the distance clang with prison-like authority. Elsewhere, however, Philibert uses his pity to fuel a more eloquent if passing observation of the way we minoritize our own. “There’s a legend in Borneo,” one interviewee claims, “that Orangutans can speak, but remain silent so they won’t have to work.” The connection, however soft, to the xenophobic stereotyping of any subculture is startlingly undeniable; when another patron rhetorically asks later, “Is it really enviable—having nothing to do?,” we can’t help but read it as a defensive murmur from a member of the disillusioned, downward looking elite.
Nénette isn’t quite Malthusian in its outlook, but it clarifies just how grim the view is from the claustrophobic “comfort zone” of the food chain’s top—ethnically, economically, environmentally. We might be responsible for our own four walls, but that doesn’t mean they don’t distribute the same superficial sustenance that Nénette receives. As Captain Beefheart passive-aggressively intoned in his kindred spirit of an apostrophe to a zoo creature named Apes-Ma, “Your cage isn’t getting any bigger.”