Lady in a cage: Nenette ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 29, 2011)

Orangutans are skeptical

Of changes in their cages

And the zookeeper is very fond of rum.

-Paul Simon

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore!’

-Edgar Allan Poe

The cat, of course, said nothing.

-Kinky Friedman

Humans are silly creatures, particularly with our compulsive need to anthropomorphize our animal friends. You see what just happened there? I had an uncontrollable compulsion to say, animal “friends”. How do I really know they’re my “friends”? When I was a kid, I loved spending Saturday mornings watching Yogi and Boo-Boo copping picnic baskets. Now, let’s say I’m taking a nature hike on Kodiak Island, and suddenly find myself face to face with a 1500 pound bear. What would be my first “compulsion” then? Give him a cheerful greeting? Not likely. I would probably acquiesce to my lizard brain response (i.e., soil myself and flee in the opposite direction).

In Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette, a documentary centering on a beloved 41 year-old female orangutan who has resided in the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris since 1969, a zoo visitor hypothesizes likewise. “The thickness of the glass…it’s in proportion to our fear of getting closer,” he muses. “She seems familiar to us, because we’re protected. But, if the glass were to break all of a sudden…you wouldn’t hear ‘my sweet Nenette’ anymore. You’d only hear, ‘Run for your lives!’.” Like I said- humans are silly creatures.

And, throughout the four decades since she was captured in her native Borneo and transplanted to the Jardin des Plantes, Nenette has watched the daily parade of silly creatures that point and gawk and endlessly pontificate about what she might be thinking. The director gives us lots of time to study Nenette’s (mostly impassive) reaction to all the fuss; because the camera stays on her (and to a lesser extent, her three fellow orangutans) for nearly the entire 70-minute running time of the film. The zoo visitors are largely heard, and not seen, save for their ephemeral reflections in the thick glass that separates the simians from the homosapiens. “She looks sad,” says one little girl. “I think she looks very depressed,” one woman opines; “Maybe she misses her husband?” wonders another.

Nenette has actually been “married” three times over the years, and has borne four offspring. One of her adult sons keeps her company (and to address the inevitable question that arises concerning the particulars of that living arrangement, a handler assures us that when Nenette’s son matured, it was decided that she be put on the pill, surreptitiously dropped into her daily bowl of yogurt).

In my favorite scene, a visitor attempts to bond with Nenette’s son. Speaking in almost reverently hushed tones, she tells a companion that, unlike most zoo patrons, she “knows how to communicate” with the orangutans. “Sing for me,” this Jane Goodall wannabe coos seductively, and then kisses the glass (we assume, as the orangutan appears to be aping the gesture from his side). I suspect she is one of those people who, according to a handler, drop by for daily chats with the apes, as if visiting with a family member in prison.

Nenette, of course, says nothing. Orangutans are taciturn by nature, and not overtly demonstrative like some of the other great apes. I suppose this makes Nenette’s inscrutable countenance an ideal “blank canvas” upon which each chatty visitor can paint their own unique projection (if you planted a microphone behind the Mona Lisa, you would likely have a very similar collage of comments).

Not surprisingly, it takes the observations of (someone we assume to be) an actor to ultimately put Philibert’s enigmatic and meditative film study into perspective. As he marvels at “the quality of (Nenette’s) idleness” which she executes “with astounding virtuosity” he is reminded of an exercise from acting class, in which the teacher instructs the students that “the space is yours…just be there.” He concludes, “She is fully there, that’s all.” For all we know, she’s pondering how yummy a nice banana might taste right now.

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