We live the entirety of our lives entombed in our skulls. Isolated from the world by a few inches of bone, we never experience what it is like to not be in our bodies and nor do we experience what it is like to be someone else. Not even for a second. Tragically detached from the world, we are forever looking out and speculating as to what it might be like out there, what might be happening inside other people’s heads. Of course, evolution has equipped us to make these inferential leaps and studies suggest that within minutes of birth, babies have already acquired a preference for looking at human faces. As a species of pattern-matchers, we seek out our fellow humans and we try to guess what it is that they are feeling. We read emotions on faces and infer the emotional states that might be causing them. As our understanding of both human psychology and ourselves expand, we build complex models that help us to make sense of other people by projecting our own emotions onto the facial expressions we see around us. We assume that other people are like us because the alternative is unbearable. It is one thing to be entombed in our heads, but it is quite another to be completely alone.
Our skill at pattern recognition is such that all too often we generate false positives. We look at the weather and random happenstance and we infer a form of human agency that eventually becomes belief in a supreme divine intelligence. We look at images beamed from the surface of Mars and we see faces in the rubble. We look at animals and we think we recognise human emotions. We project because that is what we do. We project because we cannot stand the idea that we are the only people feeling what it is that we feel. We do not want to be alone in our experiences.
Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette is a documentary film that explores this desire to project ourselves out onto the world in order to make sense of it and concludes that these acts of projection say more about the person doing the projecting than the thing being projected upon.
Filmed in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, Nenette is a seventy-minute film composed of nothing but footage of the park’s forty year-old female Orang-utan Nenette and her small but extended family. Shot from outside the enclosure, the camera picks up the happy chatter of tourists as they comment on and speculate about Nenette. This stream of uninformed but frequently hilarious commentary is occasionally augmented by off-camera interviews with Nenette’s keepers and readings from books written by early French naturalists as they explored the jungles of Borneo and faithfully recounted some of the local myths about what the Malay call ‘Men of the Forest’.
The fact that the camera is always positioned outside of the enclosure and frequently features footage of the apes interacting with the glass reflects our own tragic detachment from the world around us. Just as we are forced to look out at other people and guess what they might be thinking, Philibert and his cinematographer Katell Djan are separated from the subject of their film by a thick pane of glass. As a result, the speculations of the tourists come to resemble our own internal monologues. People suggest that Nenette must be depressed, that she misses her ‘husband’ and that it is only understandable that she is depressed as she is forced to live with her son and a person needs friends their own age. People whoop in horror when they see how fat Nenette is. They cackle with glee when she passes the glass and her pendulous breasts flop about. The tourists’ voices mirror our own sub-vocalised reactions to the world: He looks weird. Man is she ugly. They must be a couple. I quite fancy him.
At times, the acts of projection become so sophisticated that they start to seem absurd. At one point, Nenette’s oldest keeper starts to paint her as sort of existential hero who has spent her entire life being watched and defined by other people but without ever feeling the need to attract or reward their attention by ‘performing’. Other keepers suggest that Nenette has always been alienated (compared to other “softer” apes) and that because she is sick and old she may well be depressed. Scratches on the walls of the enclosure are described alternately as attempts to get out and the product of momentary excesses of energy. In an inspired move, Philibert contrasts these sophisticated readings of Orang-utan psychology with the impressions of early naturalists who report tales of Orang-utans sitting down at dinner parties and using knives, forks and napkins or of Orang-utans kidnapping young women to use as well-provided-for sex slaves or of Orang-utans being able to talk but choosing not to so as to avoid government taxes and corvee labour. These legends and rumours about the great red apes ring false to our contemporary Western ears, but in truth they are no different to our attempts to paint Nenette as an alienated individual in the grip of existential ennui.
Predictably, it is the senior keeper Gerard who comes closest to the truth. Evidently, while Nenette has been kept with her son because after producing four children the keepers decided not to breed from her anymore. However, animals seem not to share the same taboos surrounding incest as humans and so Nenette was placed on the pill. Djan responds to this by asking whether, given Nenette’s age, she might not be menopausal and Gerard responds that they do not know. Orang-utans do not menstruate and they give no sign of being in season. It is simply impossible to know whether Nenette still wants sex. It is impossible to know because she is an Orang-utan. Indeed, if we can never be certain what it is that other humans are feeling, then how can we possibly hope to understand the psychology of an ape that hardly ever moves and never makes a sound? In order to guess at Nenette’s mental state we have to project ourselves not only through our skulls but also the thick pane of glass that forever separates us from other species.
Nenette is a film about our desperate need to make sense of the world around us by projecting ourselves out into it, but it is also a film about the impossibility of ever completely grasping the world and finding out what lurks behind those deep brown eyes.