French documentary-maker Nicolas Philibert’s latest is a compassionate, thoughtful portrait of Nénette, a jocular 40-year-old ape from Borneo who counts the zoo in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes as her home and its staff as her family. We observe Nénette through finger-pawed glass as she sulks in a corner, tumbles around with her son or sloshes down tea, yoghurt and medication. ‘Nénette’ is a simpler, purer work than ‘Back to Normandy’ (2007), an indulgent film which piled up questions about the consumption and creation of art, but delivered no real revelations. It’s more in the vein of beloved rural school doc ‘Etre et Avoir’ (2002), as the director takes pains to hide his own presence and give centre-stage to his magnificent subject, although this is certainly more experimental and demanding on the viewer.
Small details are magnified by Philibert’s long, quiet takes, and Nénette’s mundane human characteristics make us consider our own lives and how we relate to the natural world. Are we wrong to apply human ideas to her? We’re told that, docile as she seems, Nénette’s upbringing was painful and until recently she met human contact with violent indifference. Of course, some may feel sad that we only see her in a sparse, sanitised environment, and Philbert earwigs on the reflections of those who pass by the zoo so we can develop our own ideas about whether casual voyeurism merits a lifetime in captivity. And if big questions aren’t for you, this is still just a wonderful film to gawp at.