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Celebrated French documentarian Nicolas Philibert has performed just about every film function there is, including acting, camera, management, production design, and director. His directing reputation has been built on documentaries covering a variety of subjects. He started with interview-based pieces critical of the corporate future but soon moved on to a series on mountain climbers and a film about a bicyclist. His interest in human interaction resulted in Every Little Thing (La Moindre des choses), a study of patients in a psychiatric clinic that put on a show, and his look at the work of a dedicated teacher in a one-room school for seven grade levels, 2002's To Be and to Have (Être et avoir). Philibert's parallel interest in hidden processes is exhibited in another of his better-known pictures, 1990's Louvre City, an examination of the unseen work of curators at the famous Paris art museum.
These two threads come together in Kino-Lorber's new DVD set of Nicolas Philibert's nature-related feature documentaries, Nénette (2010) and Animals and More Animals (1996). Nénette is a study of a 40 year-old orangutan, a star boarder in the Paris Zoo. The show at first seems fairly uncomplicated: we observe Nénette in her glassed-in enclosure and hear comments recorded by children, adult visitors, and finally Nénette's proud keepers. A massive, calm and graceful animal, Nénette is covered with beautiful orange hair. She has a thoughtful gaze that becomes more expressive as one studies it. She seems to be staring at the human visitors to her enclosure, slightly bored, perhaps waiting for something more interesting to come by her window.
It soon becomes apparent that Nénette is really about the intersection of humans and orangutans, in the most direct terms. The remarks made by the unseen human observers tell us more about them, than about the ape. Little kids giggle at the sight of her breasts and everybody wonders about the large fleshy sac that hangs from her throat. We learn from the comments that Nénette is a famous resident sought out by visitors seek. It's very difficult not to project our personal thoughts onto her features, and most of the overheard comments wonder about her in human terms. Nénette's mouth is very expressive. Does she sometimes smile, or is that an illusion?
As we film viewers sort out these comments, Nénette becomes a meditation on our definition of humanity. The ape is an almost silent animal, yet we almost expect her to talk. Someone says that African blacks joke that the orangutans chose not to talk so than nobody would put them to work. Another voice quotes an archaic text claiming that wild orangutans kidnap and rape human women.
From that extreme we move on to the thoughts of Nénette's compassionate keepers, who have worked with her all their professional lives. She has outlived three husbands and has borne three offspring. She's very particular about which keeper she will allow to tend her, and her moods are a source of speculation. She shows greater interest in red-haired visitors.
Nobody discusses the morality of caging Nénette , but that concern soon comes to mind. Her indoor cage is supplemented with an outdoor recreation area, presumably used in good weather. A casual joke is that her cage is small because the rents in Paris are so high. We also learn that the keepers allow Nénette's son to stay with her, so she won't be lonely. They seem very considerate and compassionate together. A female reporter asks for more details about the contraceptive pills given the orangutan to avoid any possibility of incest. The keepers put the pills in yogurt. "What flavor do you use?"
The more we watch Nénette, the more it seems as if we are looking in a mirror. Many of her gestures and actions read as 100% human. One of the last shots shows her opening plastic screw-top bottles, drinking some of the contents, and carefully placing the bottles down so they won't spill. The purpose and intent of her actions is unmistakable.
The second Nicolas Philibert docu in Kino's package is Animals and More Animals (Un animal, des animaux), a show with no living animals whatsoever. In the late 1800s, a marvelous exhibit hall was established, containing thousands of exhibits of preserved species brought back to Paris from all over the world. Old B&W photos show the attractive galleries teeming with hundreds of tightly packed exhibits, such as a space with a half-dozen giraffes arranged like a group of palm trees. Enormous side galleries hold hundreds of glass cases ("vitrimes") containing myriad species of birds and insects. The exhibit pavilion was immortalized in a scene in Chris Marker's 1963 science fiction film La jetée, ironically, as B&W stills.
Animals and More Animals tells us that the pavilion was closed in 1965 and its contents put into storage. Philibert's cameras followed the curators and their architects for three years to record the renovation of the marvelous building and the restoration of the exhibits. It's a process even more fascinating than that of Louvre City. Animals and More Animals takes immediate hold of our attention as we watch a small army of specialists going about their work, almost every detail of which is a revelation.
We follow some archivists into a storage shed where they evaluate dozens of monkeys stuffed for display. The items have been sitting for thirty years but most seem to be in very good shape. Two experts assess the skin of the largest display item, a huge elephant. We're told that they've found holes in the hide, while we wonder if the hide is real or what it might be made from. Who is qualified to do this kind of work and where do they come from? What do they do normally -- for most of them this must be a once-in-a-lifetime assignment.
Some of the work seems to be a combination of doll-making and anatomical artistry. One expert strings together bones while another chooses the right bead eye for a monkey mannequin. A taxidermist has done a fine job on a fierce-looking badger, but he looks ridiculous cramming the body with shredded paper, as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey. Another man unfolds an entire oxen hide over a carved wooden body that fits it like a glove. It looks like the one item must have taken a month's work. Philibert also shows a taxidermist prepping a seal, cleaning and folding its entire rubbery hide as if it were a fleshy bedspread. He chops off several seal flippers in search of a perfect set of hand-like flipper bones. This part of the process isn't so pretty.
To say that the experts are fussy is a great understatement. The main gallery will have a "grand procession" of animals walking together. Art directors and curators mull over the exact positioning of exhibits while workers with forklifts stand by. A pretty curator tells a worker that there will be more adjustments -- it's not lunchtime yet. Another specialist tells a vendor providing the new vitrime display cases that they will need to be absolutely air tight; the exhibits under glass must never be dusted.
Trucks carry the Ark-load of animals to the refurbished pavilion, where the giant ears of the bull elephant barely fit through the enormous doors. Philibert doesn't end with a grand opening or a champagne gala, but instead a lengthy montage of animal faces, all looking very alive, and very frozen.
Kino International's 2-Disc DVD set of Nénette & Animals and More Animals is a fine presentation of these very unusual documentaries. Nénette is wide-screen enhanced. The French audio is clear and English subtitles are present. Animals and More Animals was filmed flat. Colors are good and the location sound, again with English subs, is easy to follow.
The Nénette disc contains a trailer and stills gallery, as well as a short Nicolas Philibert film called Night Falls on the Menagerie, a soothing ten-minute filmic essay showing the animals of the Paris Zoo settling down for the evening.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nénette & Animals and More Animals rates:
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