The title of Thomas Balmès' film promises us babies, and by God, it sure does deliver them. This documentary is wall-to-wall babies, the cameras closely following four infants as they experience their first year of life on earth. We see them playing, sleeping, crying, crawling – you know, baby stuff – and as Balmès cuts between his four subjects, we see that kids are essentially the same no matter where they are from. Two of Babies' stars are from poor parts of the world, while two are from much more affluent backgrounds, but whether they are given high-tech gizmos or sticks and rocks to play with, the babies display a similar level of curiosity/boredom/confusion/frustration with the world around them.
Whether that insight is enough to justify a whole feature – even one that's only 79 minutes long – is another question, and one that depends entirely on how you feel about babies. If you have babies, want babies or just really, really like babies, then the film may be right up your street, and even the most hard-hearted viewer must admit that the four chosen stars are an engaging bunch. From Namibia we have a little girl called Ponijao and from Mongolia there's Bayarjargal, the two children who have to make do with the simple things in life, although those things prove to be perfectly sufficient in most cases. Meanwhile, Mari lives in Japan and Hattie lives in San Francisco, and they have to endure sessions of baby yoga and being carted around brightly lit supermarkets. Balmès occasionally appears to be making a point by cutting between the children in similar situations, and observing the differences between their rich and poor lifestyles, but for the most part there doesn't seem to be any real plan behind the film's editing pattern as it hops from one baby to another.
Personally, I found the first half-hour or so of Babies comfortably fulfilled my infant quota and after that the film was something of a drag, even if the kids are consistently cute, and there are plenty of moments that do raise a smile. I was greatly amused by a sequence in which Mari struggles to get to grips with a puzzle and repeatedly throws herself to the ground, wailing with despair after every failed attempt. The film also gets plenty of mileage out of Bayarjargal being tormented by his older brother, but it's American Hattie who offers the film's most telling comic highlight. We see her sitting with a dozen other babies in a circle while their mothers raise their arms and chant, "The Earth is our mother." Hattie, sensing her opportunity, makes a break for the door, and who could blame her?
It's hard to argue too much about the virtues and flaws of Babies, because it is exactly what it sets out to be. The parents and the rest of the world surrounding these kids are incidental – this is just babies, babies, babies, and the film makes no apologies for it. For some viewers, Babies will be a constant delight...others may empathise with the intrepid Hattie and feel the sudden urge to escape.
A couple of short montages give us the opportunity to catch up with the stars of the movie two years later, as the toddlers and their families watch the movie, and the parents are interviewed about their reasons for participating in the project. Bruno Coulais discusses his work on the film's catchy musical score, and finally director Thomas Balmès (the longest interview by far) and producer Alain Chabat (who had the original idea) each talk about this unusual documentary.
Babies will be released on DVD on March 28th
Buy Babies on DVD here