An exercise in observational cinema tracking four infants across the globe, “Babies” is refreshing in its methods, impressive in its scope and remarkable in its immediacy. That said, it’s also an occasionally frustrating docu that deprives the viewer of the comforts of exposition and cultural context. Nevertheless, the simple power of the images and the universality of the themes should provide the Focus Features release with some healthy initial audience interest and a potentially diverse, and durable, ancillary afterlife: It’s equally enthralling as a piece of entertainment and as an educational tool.
Production notes explain that this French-produced docu sprang from the desire to mount a sort of wildlife film about human babies. And that’s essentially what helmer Thomas Balmes and Alain Chabat have accomplished (sans the kind of elucidating commentary known to many a nature-doc fan). Criss-crossing among four infants in disparate locations — Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo and San Francisco — Balmes and his bare-bones crew have captured with striking detail the events that delineate the first two years in a child’s life.
With minimal information (a simple name-and-location graphic), each baby is introduced: Ponijao, the latest of nine born to a mother in rural Namibia; Bayarjargal, the youngest of two living in a Mongolian yurt; Mari, the firstborn of Tokyo-based parents; and Hattie, the first child for a San Francisco couple. Though the parents are shown peripherally, the babies are the focus of interest throughout.
Ponijao, for instance, nurses at her mother’s breast, but the mother’s face is kept out of frame. Likewise, we observe Bayarjargal sucking on a homemade pacifier or being gently tortured by his older brother; their mother may be heard in the background. For Mari and Hattie, the only children here living in densely populated urban environments, there are trips to the doctor, the park or a baby yoga class. Unspooling chronologically, the intercut footage is often thematically grouped (sections include sleeping, feeding, playing). At various times, though, the sequencing appears driven by purely aesthetic or kinetic choices.
The overall effect is at once highly absorbing and oddly dislocating, which makes sense, given the inherent aspects of direct cinema: It tends to raise as many questions as it answers. In the Namibian and Mongolian segments, for instance, a viewer might be inclined to wonder where the father is, as there’s little evidence of one (the press notes explain that the dads are away tending to their cattle). By contrast, the Tokyo and San Francisco fathers are much more engaged with their children. It’s tempting (but wrong, and surely beyond the scope of this film) to draw conclusions about the connection between educational level and paternal involvement in a child’s life.
Another potential touch point, which should intrigue the rapidly expanding subset of hypereducated and zealously overprepared American parents, is whether the plethora of data, educational gadgets, “essential” baby gear and parent-oriented discussion groups might be creating a level of anxiety that’s potentially unhealthy. Any suggestion along those lines is subtly handled, and thankfully, “Babies” doesn’t take sides. It neither valorizes nor denigrates modern urban parenting methods, and neither Hattie nor Mari seems any less content than their Mongolian and Namibian counterparts. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a simple grace and general sense of calm coursing through the scenes depicting Ponijao and her siblings.
Shot on HD almost entirely on tripods, “Babies” looks gorgeous. In the absence of commentary, Bruno Coulais’ score works especially well to help merge disparate locations and foster a sense of confluence between sequences.