Métamorphoses

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Metamorphoses
"Honoré is not afraid of magic and he has fun with grand gestures. Metamorphoses at heart is a defense of myths in all their offensive allure."

"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." Christophe 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.

Honoré, true to the first fables, starts with nature. Water, springs, rain on lakes, sunshine on rivers, the transformation of the world has already begun. Then we meet a hunter, with neon-yellow piping on the vest, out in the woods, spotting a red-wigged hermaphrodite taking a shower. A deer was shot. Gravity and lightness. Something intersects and we do not yet know what. Honoré keeps it that way with unremitting suspense and unpredictable meetings of the present with the Gods.

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Divided in three chapters around Phoenician princess Europe (Amira Akili), who in this case lives in a housing project in the suburbs, the film makes us meet the Deities and Nymphs of the mountains, Gods and Demigods in loosely established narrative strings. Akili, in her first role, is just enough regular teenager to ground the film in the here and now, and fearless enough to enchant us with Europa's newly found longings.

Between the housing blocks where Jupiter (Sébastien Hirel) first picks up Europe, poppies grow in the remnants of a meadow. "Realise who I am?" he asks the schoolgirl, and explains that he wishes to kidnap her. Hirel's sincerity is the charm. The disturbing seduction through the images matches the boldly politically incorrect events and plagues the audience to make sense of what they feel. We might recognise the familiar names in riveting new context.

The sweeping music enchants in a deceptively straight-forward way - the too much is just right to make you notice its strategic placement of rapture and restraint. Rita Hayworth as the Muse Terpsichore in Alexander Hall's 1947 musical Down To Earth would not feel out of place. During a conversation I had with Honoré in 2012, we discussed the American tradition of the Hollywood musical and the French reinvention of it. Though far from being a musical, Métamorphoses can be as overflowing and out of this world as the best of that genre.

Is that beautiful heifer, reflected in the grass pond at night, the transformed Io? Transformed because Jupiter wanted to hide his infidelity? His wife Junon (Mélodie Richard) had her doubts and gave the little gray cow to Argus (Vincent Massimino, all eyes) who, at first glance, seems to have 100 welts all over his naked body, until they blink at us. When Junon extracts the eyeballs from him and throws them in the air, the peacock is born. And the heifer runs off into the night, kicking at the firefly chasing her.

This beguiling elegy to enchantment makes the individual episodes work on different levels. The beauty of the night, water, nature, human bodies desirable in many shapes and formations, lure us into the lands of romantic as well as pagan constellations, all perfectly at ease with suburban landscapes of today. "We own the night," is written on Mercury's (Nadir Sonmez) tank top and it doesn't read as a gimmick.

Philémon and Baucis, wonderfully portrayed by Jean Courte and Gabrielle Chuiton, are symbols of kindness and hospitality who live at the side of a hill under a highway overpass and offer their last two yoghurts to their visitors. They are rewarded with a feast from the magic table, saved from the flood that destroys the entire town, and turned into a very red maple and a linden tree intertwined by the river, after they wished for synchronised deaths. Honoré shows it all in a tight package that merges the supernatural with the substance.

Blind seer Tiresias (Rachid O.) in this telling becomes a doctor who predicts safety to the worried mother of little perfect baby Narcisse, as long as he doesn't know himself. Years later, Narcisse (Arthur Jacquin) lives in the same projects where Europa seems to live. The scenes around him have the feel of Abdellatif Kechiche's L'Esquive, the young man's beauty goes in the direction of Mick Jagger, and his reflection is the sky. Jacquin's face holds the light. All of this could, of course, be Europa's dream; she wakes up from a deep sleep on the very red maple tree.

In chapters two and three, Europe is coupled with Bacchus (Damien Chapelle) and Orphée (George Babluani) respectively. We get a bit of Arachne's spider tale and catch up with the Hermaphrodite (Julien Antonini) and the three Mynias sisters with the reminder that you "have nothing to fear, if you don't believe in us." That goes as well for the Bacchantes, all in different states of undress, most of them naked wearing sneakers, draped by the water's edge. These female votaries of Bacchus, who himself sports a Hawaiian print shirt and leather vest, not so much advertise intoxication as they target our voyeurism, scintillating like the fascination one felt as a child in a museum, discovering painted anatomy of the past.

Bearded Orphée, dressed in white, collects his followers and Vénus (Keti Bicolli) gifts her three golden apples. Atalante (Vimala Pons) and Hippomène (Erwan Larcher) jump and leap on walls of hay in one of the most beautiful race sequences on film. Their competition resembles Pina Bausch's Tanztheater and works as a reminder to always say thank you if you don't want to be turned into a lion.

Modernising masterpieces of that calibre for cinema is a precarious endeavor and has often gone wrong. There are clumsy Shakespeare updates aplenty, where leather jacket-wearing bad boys encounter smoldering girls in floral shift dresses.

Honoré is not afraid of magic and he has fun with grand gestures. Metamorphoses at heart is a defense of myths in all their offensive allure.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2015
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Métamorphoses packshot
Modern-day version of the Ovid tales of transformation.

Director: Christophe Honoré

Writer: Christophe Honoré, based on the stories by Ovid

Starring: Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Mélodie Richard, Damien Chapelle, George Babluani, Matthis Lebrun, Samantha Avrillaud, Coralie Rouet, Nadir Sonmez, Vincent Massimino, Olivier Müller, Myriam Guizani, Gabrielle Chuiton, Jean Courte, Rachid O.

Year: 2014

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: France


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