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With: Nénette
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Nicolas Philibert
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 70
Date: 03/18/2013

Nénette (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The French documentary filmmaker Nicolas Philibert is primarily known for his masterful To Be and To Have (2003), an affectionate and observant portrait of a rural classroom. His latest film, Nénette, is a likewise simple affair; he merely points his camera at a 40 year-old female orangutan, while various offscreen commentators talk about her. Sometimes we hear from the zookeepers that know her best, and other times we hear from passerby who read the information from the plaque outside her pen, and make random comments (or jokes) about her.

We learn a few facts, such as that Nénette is very old for an orangutan; they generally don't live much past 30 in the wild. We learn that she has had several mates and four children. One of her children lives with her, and she is on birth control pills to prevent the possibility of her son impregnating her.

Admittedly, this is both fascinating and boring at any given moment. Nénette seems alternately contemplative and just plain sleepy. Sitting in the audience, we have a choice to listen and watch, or let our minds wander, thinking about the nature of man versus beast, the nature of captivity, the nature of life. It will help if you're a French speaker. As for the rest of us, we're left gazing at Nénette's expressive mug, as well as reading an endless string of subtitles (no human faces are ever glimpsed).

I usually love contemplative documentaries like this one, or like To Be and To Have or Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence, but Nénette doesn't seem to have much of a shape, or a plan. I wonder if Philibert really knew what he was getting into here, or if his experiment would work. It partly works, though Philibert's best decision was to keep the running time down. Much more would have put me to sleep.

In 2011, Kino released Nénette on DVD in a two disc box set that also includes two other, shorter Philibert films: Animals and More Animals (1996) and Night Falls on the Menagerie (2011). Additionally, Kino has also released three other Philibert films on DVD, available separately: Louvre City (1990), In the Land of the Deaf (1992), and Every Little Thing (1997).

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