Thursday, 21 April 2011

Sad Mums (Notes on Nenette and Mildred Pierce)

In Nicolas Philibert’s recent formalist nature doc, Nenette, we watch a 40 year old female orangutan slump in the limited but roomy confines the monkey house at Paris’ Jardin des Plantes Exotiques Zoo. The camera gazes at her, and sometimes at her cell mate, in a series of mostly statics close and mid shots. Off screen we hear the voices of visitors and keepers: joking, questioning, ruminating, or perhaps just projecting their own hang-ups onto Nenette’s all-too-human condition.  Is she depressed? Lonely? Content to live out her days eating the occasional yogurt and watching the world go by? Occasionally we see her audience reflected in the perspex, but the voices are never identified.

Like the subject of Phillipe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s somewhat similar Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Nenette is perhaps a little past her prime, but still a ‘Galactico’ of sorts in her own arena. (Or maybe even like Lola Montes, wheeled in to face a curious crowd eager to glimpse the wanton history etched into her face.)

The off screen commentators discuss her dietary habits, sexual history, digestion, but Nenette remains placid: as poker-faced as Zidane or Warhol’s Empire State Building. (Interestingly, the original conception behind Empire involved various unseen voices, including Jonas Mekas and Gerald Malanga, but the finished film was kept silent.)

Nenette is confined with her eldest child, Tubo, having been ‘retired’ from her reproductive function some years earlier. She has worked her way three ‘husbands’ we’re told, the latter two shipped in from across the continent. Now, rather humiliatingly, she is fed a birth control pill (laced into her yogurt) to prevent any incestuous offspring.

Her condition, a single mother at 40, imprisoned with her kin and looked upon with affectionate pity, reminded me a little of Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes’ brilliant 5 part drama for HBO (I must admit that proximity of viewing is likely the chief reason behind the comparison). Over a leisurely 5 plus hours we see Mildred stoically struggle with her own abject position (a divorced woman in 1930s America), tried by a resentful daughter, but occasionally relieved by second-wind sexuality.

Mildred’s trajectory from housewife to waitress to business celebrity and finally to bit-part support to her celebrated offspring, is perhaps similar to that of Nenette’s. We hear about her period in the limelight - as star attraction - before being pushed aside for her more camera friendly infants. It seems this might be a particularly maternal condition. In his book Miracles of Life, J.G Ballad observes similar:

“As a father who collected his children from school, I spent a great deal of time by the school gates and soon recognised the fierce maternal tension that made adolescence a hell for many of my daughters’ friends. Some mothers simply could not cope with the growing evidence that their daughters were younger, more womanly and more sexually attractive than they were.”

Philibert himself compares Nenette to another tragic heroine, Emma Bovary, who's own frustrations in love and parenthood made her an ideal site for the readers own projections: “Just as Flaubert declared, 'I am Madame Bovary!', so I could say, 'I am Nenette'. She is you. She is us.”

As one of the commentators half-seriously suggests, Nenette is a “kept woman”. In Haynes’ drama, the lead character can fight against this, but we see the effects as ultimately dangerous and sadly futile. Nenette may look pretty docile behind that barrier, but take away the perspex and you might see a very different character.