Bébé(s) (Babies)

Bébé(s) (Babies) (2010): France – directed by Thomas Balmes

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains naturalistic nudity

Babies is not an ordinary movie, and not even an ordinary documentary.  The premise is simple but well explored, the story nonexistent, but the themes universal.  As a whole the film provides an uplifting look at the most basic and primitive human emotions and experiences.

Many documentaries are insightful looks at a condition or a situation, often accompanied by the filmmaker’s probing questions.  Babies is a documentary in the style’s truest form; it documents the lives of four babies as they grow.  There is no narrator providing an amusing and forced storyline, there are no talking heads explaining the psychology of infants or the differences in child rearing between vastly different cultures.  There are only babies, and the simple lives that they lead.

The opening shot is one of the best.  Two African babies (in a small village in Namibia) sit together on the dirt floor of a straw hut.  They are pounding rocks with stones, as their mothers will later do to create colorful powders.  They imitate each other’s actions and learn together.  But then one of them grabs for a plastic bottle, which the other suddenly realizes he wants.  A power struggle erupts, complete with hitting and slapping, tears and wailing.  A snapshot of the human condition.

There is no story for the rest of the 80 minute film, as the camera merely sits and observes four babies.  Alongside the Namibian baby, there is a Japanese couple in Tokyo who give birth to a baby girl, a Mongolian child whose parents are nomadic shepherds, and a little girl born to a New-Age couple in San Francisco.  The film cuts between the four locales, showing each child as they slowly grow.  The only dialogue comes in brief mumbles from their parents, though there are no subtitles for any of them, leaving most Western audiences to only understand the Californian family.  But perhaps it would have been better if the audience couldn’t understand any of them, as their words are meaningless and almost detract from the film.

For Western audiences two of the babies are particularly fascinating, perhaps because their cultures are so different from anything familiar.  The Mongolian child is tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes and cinched tight with ribbon, before his mother carries him on a motorcycle ride into the hills and plains of Mongolia.  The Namibian mother wipes her baby’s bottom on her knee, which she then cleans with a corn husk.  These insights into a vastly different culture are thought-provoking; despite the apparent lack of hygiene these societies have survived for thousands of years.  Why do Western mothers molly-coddle their young so?

Babies will turn off some audiences with its complete lack of story and dialogue.  To be fair, it does feel a bit long with no dialogue to keep the audience’s interest, much like a silent film with an orchestral score.  The soundtrack is great, with some tracks providing a quirky indie film feel, which is never forced or inappropriate.  The positive side of the lack of story is that each viewer is left to infer meaning; two people could walk away from the film with distinctly different impressions of its meaning.  For this alone the film is worth praising.  So many feature films and documentaries these days push a message or theme, leaving little room for independent thought.

I greatly enjoyed the film.  There was hardly a moment I wasn’t smiling, and I was laughing perhaps half the time.  The babies are adorable and cute, and do a lot of crazy things.  The cinematography ranges from brilliant to perfectly acceptable.  A couple scenes in particular stand out as gorgeous.  The film isn’t perfect, and while it gains its character from having no story it may leave even an enraptured viewer wishing there was maybe something more.  Overall it is an inspired documentary, with wonderful footage and an interesting theme, and is most certainly worth watching.

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