The film is as much about ourselves as it is about orang-utans […]. Nénette is a mystery. We don’t know what she thinks or if she thinks at all… She is a receptacle for our fantasies. She is a projection screen… The monkey house where she lives is almost like a confessional. When they talk about Nénette, people talk about themselves…

– Nicolas Philibert (1)

Humans have a long history of anthropomorphising animals. Archaeological evidence of the tendency exists in cultural artefacts held in museums around the world and its contemporary manifestation abounds in the nature documentaries that continually appear on our television screens. It’s as if capturing animals through a camera lens cannot be transformed into a meaningful viewing experience unless their actions can be understood within the realm of human emotion and logic; a need for comprehension characterised by a desire for identification. The logical extreme of anthropomorphism as entertainment presents itself in the strangely successful British television series Meerkat Manor, in which the interactions between a family (tribe?) of Meerkats are used as the basis for a regular serialised program in which the little animals are made into cast members and their interactions monitored and narrated as recognisable televisual drama, cliffhangers included. One need only search for the program on Youtube to find a series of tributes to the meerkat “Flower”, who died in the series after a snakebite, and see the emotional engagement such a narrative elicits from its audience. Nicolas Philibert’s Nénette, a documentary centred on the Paris Zoo’s, or Jardin des Plantes’, oldest inmate, delicately poses questions about the relations between human and non-human animals and dwells on this idea in particular by watching the 40-year-old orang-utan in her habitat and selectively eavesdropping on her visitors.

Philibert’s editing of his footage, consisting almost entirely of Nénette herself, is geared towards contemplation. Slow, methodical takes linger on the beast’s face and body to give an uninterrupted view of her movements. We watch the large and silent figure behind the glass as the voices of her keepers and visitors muse about various aspects of her history, as well as her emotional and physical wellbeing. Children talk about her surface appearance – her breasts, her hair, they notice that she looks like a man. The adults that visit her pose more internal questions to each other, attempting to unlock the mysteries behind her despondent gaze (is she lonely, depressed?) or else assuming a unique or privileged connection with the hulking, shuffling mass of primate.

A generalised critique of this human habit is underwritten by indictments of a kind of human-centric narcissism borne out of deeply rooted Judeo-Christian religious and cultural traditions. A more psychologically-based critique acknowledges that the social human animal is built to recognise emotional signals from fellow members of their species as a survival mechanism and so this instinct easily and naturally carries over to our interaction with mammals. This misidentification is made easier when a mammal’s face and motor-skills align so easily with our own, as in the case of primates. Philibert’s light but ever-present touch does not seek to judge human responses to Nénette and her situation, more to reflect on the different ways in which this tendency manifests – itself a reflection that finds its literal form in the reflections of faces of Nénette’s audience on the glass that separates them from her.

Whether behind the glass of a zoo’s enclosure or that of a television screen, what Philibert appears most interested in is neither humans nor animals, but specifically the modes of engagement between the two. The human fascination and attempts at identification with Nénette are complicated as we hear and are shown instances in which she and her housemates appear to have a reciprocal attraction to human behaviour. We see Nénette cover her head and shoulders in a sheet and delicately handle a piece of clothing, an image reminiscent of a woman in a sari folding her washing. A younger orang-utan does the same thing with another sheet, covering his head and staring blankly into the distance, as if lost in thought. Early in the film, Philibert includes a shot of a human hand washing the glass window of her enclosure and later we see Nénette methodically cleaning her side of the glass, rag in hand. We learn that Nénette is a mother of four and has survived three “husbands”. Tubo, the last of her children still with her, now doubles as husband and son. She is placed on the pill to avoid any embarrassing pregnancies from her companion; a human solution for an animal kept in unnatural surroundings.

As we observe Nénette and her housemates, we almost become complicit in her imprisonment and exploitation. Philibert chooses to keep his camera on the visitors’ side of her enclosure although from the sound bites of interviews with Nénette’s keepers he clearly has the option of exploring her home more intimately if he chooses. And so we watch her behind glass and – through the three-dimensional capacities of film sound and some highly skilled editing – become one of her stream of visitors. In the process, we are helped to contemplate our own process of identification with the beast. This is further encouraged through long stretches of almost-silence, in which only soft footsteps or echoes from the outside world are audible and we are left alone with Nénette and our thoughts, as if we have arrived at the zoo on a slow day.

Philibert’s film is more philosophical reflection than observational documentary. The soundscapes created through his delicate methods of assembly ebb in and out of the aural “frame”, each suggesting a different means through which to contemplate not only the beast and her situation but, more significantly, our own relationship with her and other mammals like her, a relationship characterised by voyeurism and the power relations that accompany it. There are no conclusions to this enquiry, only possibilities and further questions. The calm and contemplative rhythms of the film make sure these questions resonate some time after viewing, but Nénette herself will remain in her stasis behind glass, observed and mused upon until her strange existence reaches its logical conclusion.


  1. Philibert quoted in John Lichfield, “Ready for Your Close-up, Nénette?”, The Independent 3 April 2010: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/ready-for-your-closeup-nnette-1934736.html.

Nénette (2010 France 70 mins)

Prod Co: Les Films d’Ici/Forum des Images Prod: Serge Lalou Dir: Nicolas Philibert Phot: Katell Dijan, Nicolas Philibert Ed: Léa Masson, Nicolas Philibert Mus: Pascal Gallois, Philippe Hersant