Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Forty Year-Old Diva: Nenette

She is either gruffly charismatic or a pale shadow of her natural self. Either way, she is an orangutan. She is the ripe old grand dame of Paris’ Jardin des Plantes Exotiques zoo and her life (and its quality) are captured simply and directly in Nicolas Philibert’s Nénette (trailer here), which opens today in New York at Film Forum.

Nénette is an estimated forty years old. She has had four baby orangutans with three mates. Two hundred years ago, that would be considered a full life for most humans. However, Nénette has lived hers in the confinement of the zoo since 1972. In that time, she has become an institution at the world’s oldest operating public menagerie, with scores regular dedicated visitors. We hear (but do not see) many of them as they observe, discuss and project upon the more-or-less disinterested Nénette.

Granted, at forty years of age, Nénette is not the most active monkey in the house. However, Philibert captures expressions that at times appear listless but also sometimes seem legitimately bemused. Ironically, her handlers often inadvertently supply the most persuasive case against such captivity. Yet, Nénette’s very longevity (an estimated five years beyond standard orangutan expectancy) argues otherwise.

At only sixty-seven minutes, Nénette is a tad brief, but in a shrewd programming move, Film Forum has paired it with Nick (Wallace & Gromit) Park’s Academy Award winning animated short Creature Comforts. Thematically related, Creature synchs real life audio of miserable Londoners with claymated animals confined to zoo cages. Though they lack Gromit’s genial charm, they are still an excellent example of the animation style that bagged Park four Oscars (and how his Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death lost #5 to the one-joke Logorama earlier this year remains ever mystifying).

Scrupulously observational (albeit with some odd off-camera commentary), Nénette is essentially like a long visit to Paris zoo to study its most famous inhabitant. Of course, as a true Parisian, the blasé Nénette is hardly concerned with converting new fans. Yet, for those who are intrigued by the diva of the Jardin des Plantes (you primate groupies will already know who you are), it is an economical means of sharing a genuine City of Lights experience at ground level. It opens today (12/22) at Film Forum.