The fine French documentarian Nicolas Philibert makes films of the Frederick Wiseman school, shaping footage gathered through an unimposing, rigorously observational shooting style. When it pays off, the effect is subtle and quietly poetic: His 1992 documentary In The Land Of The Deaf evoked the lives of the hearing-impaired in a way that was innovative without being obtrusive, and 2003’s To Be And To Have, his beautiful slice-of-life about a teacher of small children in a rural school, drew tremendous warmth from its setting and subjects. But no matter how good the concept, sometimes the footage just doesn’t cooperate: Philibert’s disappointing 2007 film Back To Normandy revisited the extras from an obscure feature he assistant-directed 30 years earlier, but found very little had changed. And Nénette, his hourlong study of a beloved 40-year-old orangutan at the Jardin des Plantes Exotiques zoo, yields precious little beyond the melancholy contours of its subject’s face.
Born in the forests of Borneo in 1969 and brought to the zoo a few years later, Nénette has birthed four children (one of whom resides with her) and survived a serious abscess that threatened her life. Philibert parcels out this information not through narration or titles, but through offscreen remarks by her handlers and other visitors to the zoo. He seeks to capture what Nénette’s daily life is like from inside her enclosure, so the human beings in the film are limited to disembodied voices and the occasional reflection off the glass. As with all of Philibert’s work, Nénette is impeccably composed and admirably disciplined, but his patient observation can’t unlock the mysteries of an animal that’s grown more introspective and likely less expressive over time. (For its two-week engagement at Film Forum in New York, Nénette will be preceded by “Creature Comforts,” Nick Park’s delightful Claymation short about the chatty residents of a London zoo.)