'Metamorphoses': Venice Review

Jean-Louis Fernandez/Les Films Pelleas
A pleasantly low-key literary adaptation with a lot of ideas beneath the shimmering surface

French director Christophe Honore updates Ovid's epic poem, though the gods still don't seem to care much for clothes

VENICE — Like his compatriot, Francois Ozon, queer French director Christophe Honore loves to work in different genres. Honore's last film, Beloved, was a big-budget musical (with famous stars including Catherine Deneuve) that tipped its hat to the work of Jacques Demy and closed the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. His new film, Metamorphoses, a low-key and contemporary adaptation of Ovid's colossal collection of Greco-Roman myths, is reminiscent of Pasolini's literary adaptations and features practically only nonprofessional actors. Clearly a somewhat odd proposition in terms of distribution, Metamorphoses should nonetheless pique the interest of festivals on the heels of its Venice Days premiere, though VOD revenues will clearly outstrip arthouse play.

The feature's first shots, filmed in luxuriant widescreen by director of photography Andre Chemetoff, offer several lush tableaux of nature. However, Honore provides a correction to the idea that Metamorphoses might be set in an idealized alternate reality or on a higher celestial plane immediately after the title card, when the shots continue but one also spies utility poles and even a passing car amid the green shrubbery.

Ovid's original poem features well over 250 different myths that together recount the history of the world from its inception until the death of Julius Caesar. As the title suggests, many of the characters are transformed, often from humans into animals, though the name of the poem also suggests how the work itself transforms countless practically freestanding stories into one larger and more organic whole.

It would be impossible to fit all the fables of Ovid's 15 books into a single feature. However, Honore has at least stayed true to Ovid's technique, also organizing the stories he's chosen into a larger whole. His binding element is the beautiful young Europa, here a high-school student played by Amira Akili, of North African descent. This casting choice alone justifies this artistic endeavor, as her name and looks are of course significant, suggesting the multicultural melting pot France has become or at least should have become by now. Interestingly, Classics scholars will realize this isn't even a very revisionist point of view, as Europa is traditionally seen as being of Phoenician origins (i.e., outside of the continent that would be named after her).

In the three segments into which the film is divided, Europa encounters first the hunky Jupiter (Sebastien Hirel), King of the Gods; then Bacchus (Damien Chapelle), God of wine, madness and ecstasy; and finally, Orpheus (George Babluani), who is often associated with death. In each chapter, Europa doesn't only live through a particular myth but is also told other stories, so a rich tapestry of interconnected narratives emerges. Highlights include the stories of Tiresias (Rachid O.), here a transgendered doctor who'll answer Jupiter's query of whether men or women have more (sexual) pleasure, and Narcissus (Arthur Jacquin, indeed devastatingly handsome), who famously succumbed to his own beauty.

Of course, not a single meaning can be assigned to a work called Metamorphoses, but different ideas constantly coil underneath the film's shimmering surface. A shot in the second chapter, which shows two characters swimming naked in an expanse of turquoise water, accompanied by flutes on the soundtrack, suggests how little it takes for everyday places and actions to be elevated to a higher, God-like or Eden-like plane. Meanwhile, the aftermath of Narcissus's death suggests how thin the lines between today, the distant past and even the times of myth and legend really are, as we still fall into ancient patterns and rituals that give our life meaning in difficult times.

Acting from the large cast is naturalistic, insofar as the behavior of Gods can be called that at all. Many of the more fantastical elements, such as the transformation of several characters into animals, are handled through simple cuts in the editing. Indeed, the unfussiness of the mise-en-scene — as well as the presence of good-looking, often naked nonprofessional actors — is reminiscent of Pasolini's literary films from the early 1970s, such as his Decameron and 1001 Nights adaptations. However, there's a lot less humor in Honore's work, which feels more gently melancholy.

Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, France 3 Cinema, Le Pacte Cast: Amira Akili, Sebastien Hirel, Melodie Richard, Damien Chapelle, Geogre Babluani, Matthis Lebrun, Samantha Avrillaud, Coralie Rouet, Nadir Sonmez, Vimala Pons
Writer-Director: Christophe Honore, screenplay based on the epic poem by Ovid
Producer: Philippe Martin
Director of photography: Andre Chemetoff
Production designer: Samuel Deshors
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Sales: MK2

No rating, 101 minutes

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