Saturday, May 29, 2010

Little People, Big World: BABIES

Babies is a film about looking. In this French documentary from director Thomas Balmès, the audience is treated to long, steady, tranquil shots that look in on four different babies – one from Japan, one from Namibia, one from Mongolia, one from America – throughout the course of their first year. We look at the babies. The babies look at their world. We gaze. They gaze. It’s cinema so simple that it’s a wonder that this concept has gone almost entirely unexploited until now.

The subjects may be infants, but the film is hardly infantile. Instead, it’s merely passive. Balmès is content to provide almost no context at all. When quick subtitles at the beginning tell us the names and locations of the four babies, it almost seems like an imposition on the part of the audience to even desire that small scrap of information. This is a film to observe, to contemplate, and, of course, to coo and giggle at the screen.

After all, babies are cute. They have chubby limbs, plump cheeks, and big watery eyes that are always moving, always revealing thought. They are little people discovering the world. They don’t hesitate to show emotion. They have no illusions, no pretensions, and no falsehoods. They are what they are. The film shows them crying, smiling, laughing, playing, eating, urinating, thinking, babbling, crawling. It’s almost entirely wordless; the voices of the parents go without subtitles and are mixed at a volume of low comprehensibility. When one little guy finally says “mama” in the last reel of the picture, it’s nearly revelatory.

As the film unspools, attentive viewers will notice patterns both visual and textual. The shots are consistently low to the ground. Groupings of developments and growth show similarities of babies that are consistent across cultures, even as cultural differences become clearer as the film progresses. It’s interesting to see, say, a baby in Namibia splashing through a puddle while one in Mongolia meets a chicken, while one in Tokyo visits a play group, while one in America looks at a book. More interesting are the moments that show the babies at similar moments, like bathing, eating, or socializing. Here the comparing and contrasting are more obvious. And yet, with such quiet, restrained filmmaking, these moments are neither conversations nor condemnations. They are what you decide they are.

With so little spoon-fed to the viewer, it could easily become a passive experience of giggling and smiling at what could be seen as a mere feature-length YouTube video. “Oh, look at the cute widdle baby!” The film deserves a little more than that. Balmès presents his tableaus with some artistry and thoughtfulness and, though it ultimately feels a little long, it’s a moderately fascinating, and very adorable, experience.

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