‘Nenette’: An upclose and personal look at orangutans

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie critic
  • Friday, February 4, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

Orangutans don’t speak. They barely vocalize at all, not like those loudmouth chimpanzees. Orangutans watch, and climb, and stare.

This makes them perfect specimens for a near-universal habit practiced by their primate relatives, humans. We like to look at apes and ponder their resemblance to us and wonder what on earth they could possibly be thinking.

The orangutans in “Nenette” don’t give up anything on that last point. Nicolas Philbert’s film is an observational piece that replicates the act of visiting the zoo and gazing at the apes behind the glass.

We see no people in the movie, except as they are occasionally reflected in the windows of the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. We simply look at the orangutans there, especially a 40-year-old queen named Nenette.

Born in Borneo and brought to the zoo as a 2- or 3-year-old, Nenette has seen a lot through her mournful eyes. She’s had four babies and worked her way through a handful of mates. Right now, she’s sharing space with her grown-up son, Tobu, and a couple of younger apes.

The film has a running commentary on the soundtrack. Along with the noises of the zoo, we hear voices: children passing before Nenette’s enclosure, the observations of her keepers, and some facts about the history of orangutans.

Nenette’s strong personality (and her physical strength) have made tending her a long-term, full-time job. A couple of zookeepers attest to the years it took to work their way into her trust (one man has spent most of his career — 35 years’ worth and counting — being around Nenette).

What kind of movie experience is this? Philibert is the man who made an enchanting film out of a year in the life of a small-town schoolhouse in “To Be and To Have.” Since orangutans are endlessly fascinating, and their resemblance to human physiognomy so amazing, he’s got a fitting subject for a quiet, contemplative film.

After all the words we hear on the soundtrack, when we look at Nenette we can be forgiven for still feeling a sense of utter mystery. Or maybe we’re just projecting our own feelings onto these creatures; who says an orangutan’s eyes are mournful, anyway? Maybe they’re perfectly happy, or maybe they’re solving complex mathematical equations.

You can see why people make up mythology about them. One legend has it that orangutans can speak perfectly well. They simply choose not to because they don’t want to work. And how can we prove that isn’t exactly what’s going on?


A contemplative documentary that consists of various shots of orangutans in a Paris zoo, with special focus on the 40-year-old Nenette. Director Nicolas Philibert (“To Be and To Have”) fills the soundtrack with voices — experts and children alike — but the movie creates its mood thanks to the fascination of looking at our simian relatives. In French, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably G

Showing: Metro

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