Near the center of Paris, 5th arrondissement, there is a large, old botanical garden called the Jardin des Plantes, which houses an 18th-century natural history museum (extinct megasloth! Two-faced pickled kittens!), a museum of evolution, several hothouses, a maze, and a menagerie. In the menagerie lives a 40-year-old lady orangutan named Nénette.
Nénette was taken from the jungles of Borneo when she was just a little orange ape-baby. Then she proceeded to spend 40 years sitting in a box, being gawked at by jerks. The structure of this brief, sympathetic, troublesome documentary is simple: keep the camera on Nénette’s big, commanding, depressing face while French people (not pictured) murmur questions and observations about her existence. “Her face has such character.” “Curiosity drains her. She is drained by shining eyes.” “It looks strangely like a man. Except that a man’s body hair is much shorter.” “She spends her life doing nothing. And, all of a sudden, it makes you wonder. Is it really that enviable, having nothing to do?”
The most interesting parts of the movie come when the zookeepers chime in, facing ethical conflicts with surprising candor: “All of us working in zoos share an inner sense of deep-seated guilt.” It’s impossible to tell how Nénette feels about the whole thing—all we humans can do is project. Yeah, she looks bored, bummed out, purposeless. She drinks tea out of plastic bottles, noodles around in piles of hay, and stares at nothing all day long. And even the attention of zoo patrons has waned—she’s been replaced by more popular younger orangutans.
Would Nénette rather be endlessly scrabbling for food in the dangerous jungle (dead by now—she’s about a decade past her life expectancy), or does the captive life suit her fine? How can she miss something she’s never known? “She doesn’t need to be wary,” says one onlooker. “She doesn’t have to fight or resist or come up with ways to deal with things. She’s like a kept woman. A hairy one.”