Picturing the gods, part 1

Christophe Honoré talks about Europe, narcissism and their incarnations in Métamorphoses.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Erwan Larcher (Hippomène) and Vimala Pons (Atalante) in Christophe Honoré's Métamorphoses
Erwan Larcher (Hippomène) and Vimala Pons (Atalante) in Christophe Honoré's Métamorphoses

Métamorphoses director Christophe Honoré discussed with me why myths and cinema make a rare happy coupling, with a few exceptions. La Vie Est Un Roman by Alain Resnais, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and Rita Hayworth as a goddess are conjured up by us inside the Furman Gallery at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Pina Bausch's Café Müller seems to have unconsciously influenced the performances of Erwan Larcher and Vimala Pons. The mythical cast includes Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Mélodie Richard, Damien Chapelle, George Babluani, Matthis Lebrun, Gabrielle Chuiton, Jean Courte, Rachid O., and Keti Bicolli.

Christophe Honoré with Anne-Katrin Titze:
Christophe Honoré with Anne-Katrin Titze: "For myths, there is one filmmaker working today whom I admire tremendously and that is Apichatpong Weerasethakul…" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

"My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies," wrote Ovid in his narrative poem Metamorphoses, that tells of the beginning of the world, "even to my own times." Honoré, who also wrote the screenplay, takes the book of transformations, published in 8 AD, that includes over 250 myths, discards what the likes of Titian or Rubens, Chaucer or Shakespeare did with it, and fires into the 21st century.

Anne-Katrin Titze: We spoke two years ago about French musicals and you said that you like when the audience has to do work. You do put the audience to work in Métamorphoses. Was it Ovid specifically who interested you, was it myths in general, or did you want to bring a classic text into the present?

Christophe Honoré: I think what interested me most in any case was the idea of backward and forward, coming and going. To take this text that was written two thousand years ago and have it played by people literally today. To have it played mostly not by actors but amateurs who were found on the street and therefore to observe in a film what this trajectory of coming and going between the past and today would create for meaning and form. And as far as Ovid is concerned, I was lucky enough when I was young to be a scholar of Latin.

AKT: You had Latin in school?

CH: Yes, Latin in school at 12. So these are texts that have always fascinated me. And suddenly all these problems of directing that his texts posed, the supernatural, the fantastic, the representation of the gods - all these suddenly were challenges in directing that I wanted to deal with in my films.

Baby Narcisse with Tirésias (Rachid O.):
Baby Narcisse with Tirésias (Rachid O.): "I found it moving to film him as a baby."

AKT: In the going back and forth in time, the one thing that stays the same is water. You begin with these beautiful images of rain on water, sunshine on water. The transformation, the metamorphoses in nature in contrast to those of the gods you were just talking about - is that what made you start your film this way, with nature?

CH: It was interesting to work on this idea of permanence. In other words, what remains today from a period that on the one hand is very distant, two thousand years ago, but on the other quite close. That's what made it interesting to look at nature. On the other hand it's nature that is held very tightly and that shows a lot of traces of the industrial. Nature shows these traces right outside of cities where there is a conflict between nature and civilisation.

AKT: You are talking about, for example, the field of poppies in-between the housing blocks?

CH: That's what's quite beautiful, actually. The challenge was always to tell ourselves where could the gods appear today in France? And not any god, the Greek and Latin gods, which means, unlike the monotheistic god, these are gods who are fascinated by human nature and by this I mean both the human body and the beauty of nature.

Europe (Amira Akili) with Jupiter:
Europe (Amira Akili) with Jupiter: "Like the character, through the course of the film, she was living this initiation…"

AKT: Where did you shoot the film, the housing blocks and the areas around them?

CH: They are cities in the South of France, mostly towns around Nîmes and Montpellier. I wanted to have a southern, Mediterranean feel but on the other hand I didn't want to have the kind of cliché seaside Mediterranean look.

AKT: I loved the choice of Europe (Amira Akili) as your main character because of everything that is in her name. The film is, of course, also about the continent of Europe today. How did you go about choosing from 250 myths by Ovid and pick a handful?

CH: At the time I started thinking about this film there was so much news about what we could call the Greek debt. With all this discourse that I found rather shocking - that Greece is ultimately a ball and chain for Europe and that we have to get rid of the Mediterranean countries in Europe. So for me the idea of working on Ovid's poem was partially to give memory to the European continent and to remind them that even the name Europe, comes from the Greek and Latin myths. This explains why, as soon as I started my casting, right away when I was looking at young girls for the role of Europe, I wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of Europe in paintings. Which is nearly always a young blonde girl, with braided hair that is very Germanic.

Christophe Honoré shooting Métamorphoses in Nîmes:
Christophe Honoré shooting Métamorphoses in Nîmes: "Nature shows these traces right outside of cities where there is a conflict between nature and civilization."

This is why I chose Amira who is a young French woman of background in the Maghreb [region of North Africa] and I wanted to give her the idea that she, she herself, was a French person against this idea of a continent and a country that is repelling her, pushing her away.

AKT: She is great in the role.

CH: She is not an actress at all, actually. I found her in the street and at the time she was studying to be an assistant in a kindergarten. It was quite interesting, because in a way she found herself in the same position as the character of Europe. When I told her I was going to make a film based on Ovid, she had absolutely no knowledge of the text or those particular myths. Like the character, through the course of the film, she was living this initiation of a character whose name came from a past of which she was completely unconscious.

AKT: One of the episodes I found particularly stunning, was the story of Philémon (Jean Courte) and Baucis (Gabrielle Chuiton). The idea of hospitality links it with what you were just talking about - Europe opening doors or rejecting people. Is that why you included this myth?

CH: You know, at the moment in France, hospitality isn't the value that is the most shared. Even in Ovid, at the beginning, they are rejected by an entire village and I found it quite interesting to have this idea that the gods are vagabonds, they are wanderers. It was funny to make them beg for coins in front of a Catholic church where no one gave them the slightest coin. From a historical point of view, all these pagan gods, Greek gods, they were violently rejected by the early Christians who fought to get rid of what they considered barbarous beliefs. It was interesting to have that couple of Philémon and Baucis because it's one of the rare myths in which the metamorphosis is not a punishment, it's a reward. Most of the metamorphoses are punishments from the gods.

Europe and Jupiter with Philémon and Baucis post transformation:
Europe and Jupiter with Philémon and Baucis post transformation: "…it's one of the rare myths in which the metamorphosis is not a punishment, it's a reward."

AKT: You decided to make Tirésias (Rachid O.) a doctor, who tells, of all things, the mother of baby Narcisse what will happen. Where did that idea come from?

CH: In the work of adaptation, I started thinking about who you go to when you ask about your future. Today, the person we are going to ask how things will go and if we are going to survive - that's a doctor. I liked the idea of filming Narcisse as a baby. Generally, the representations of him are as a child or a teenager right before the fall. I found it moving to film him as a baby.

AKT: Moving and also very funny. The mother [Liriope] is so worried, saying, oh my, my baby is so beautiful, what will happen to him? Later, you have Narcisse (Arthur Jacquin) see his reflection not in water but in the sky. Is that because everything is in the sky today?

CH: I thought the theme of narcissism was very relevant for young people today, whether it's with selfies or exhibiting their lives online. I thought it was important with Narcisse to show nearly his depression with narcissism.

In part 2, Rita Hayworth as a goddess, Pina Bausch's Tanztheater, Alain Resnais, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and Les Malheurs De Sophie (The Misfortunes Of Sophie) by the Comtesse de Ségur.

Metamorphoses is out in the UK now

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