Picturing the gods, part 2

Christophe Honoré on Métamorphoses, working with animals, and the power of myth.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Métamorphoses director Christophe Honoré agrees in a way with Wild Life (Vie sauvage) director Cédric Kahn
Métamorphoses director Christophe Honoré agrees in a way with Wild Life (Vie sauvage) director Cédric Kahn Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

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 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. Working with animals and the mythical cast of Métamorphoses that includes Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Mélodie Richard, Damien Chapelle, George Babluani, Coralie Rouet, Matthis Lebrun, Gabrielle Chuiton, Jean Courte, Rachid O., and Keti Bicolli.

Christophe Honoré, true to the first Ovid 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.

Io as a heifer: "I used someone who raises heifers because I wanted a specific breed."
Io as a heifer: "I used someone who raises heifers because I wanted a specific breed."

Anne-Katrin Titze: You are working a lot with animals here and in very interesting ways.

Christophe Honoré: For the last time!

AKT: Really? You are not the first filmmaker who told me that in the past few days. When I talked to Cédric Kahn about Wild Life (Vie Sauvage) he said "I hate the monkey," because the monkey bit one of the boys acting in his film. Why is it the last time for you working with animals?

CH: The problem isn't so much the animals, it's the people who train the animals. The only animal where it actually went really well for the film was the heifer. And the reason was that I didn't use a cinema trainer, I used someone who raises heifers because I wanted a specific breed. I think that animal trainers in cinema are the worst gangsters there are. And yet, believe me, there are many gangsters in the professions of cinema. So for instance, the deer, the first animal, I went to a place two hours away from Paris and looked at all these deer in a field and I chose a specific one with the horns.

And he had to have special training so that he could handle having dogs barking around him. When they turned up at the shoot, I found myself stuck with an obese doe, because the male deer had damaged his antlers so he couldn't come. As soon as the hunting dogs came out, they just disappeared into the woods and I never saw them again. It's complicated - but animals are interesting to film after that.

Junon (Mélodie Richard) with Jupiter (Sébastien Hirel): "Jupiter will remain from beginning to end a sexually obsessed egotist. Junon will remain jealous from beginning to end."
Junon (Mélodie Richard) with Jupiter (Sébastien Hirel): "Jupiter will remain from beginning to end a sexually obsessed egotist. Junon will remain jealous from beginning to end."

AKT: The heifer with the firefly chasing it is a magical scene, so it was worth it. I came across a quote by Walter Benjamin that I think fits very well with your film. Benjamin writes: "There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis."

CH: That's the great force of myths, that there is no psychological evolution. Jupiter will remain from beginning to end a sexually obsessed egotist. Junon will remain jealous from beginning to end. There is no psychological evolution. For an audience today, when they watch these myths, there's no identification. That's very disturbing for them. It only touches our unconscious, not our consciousness.

AKT: That's why there are so many films about fairy tales today. Fairy tales are the opposite of myths, they are the reaction to myths, so that everybody can identify. Myths are about specific characters doing their specific thing. I was trying to think of movies that tried to tackle myths successfully and I thought about a musical - after our previous conversation about musicals. Rita Hayworth in Alexander Hall's Down To Earth plays the Muse Terpsichore, the Muse of dance. It's from 1947. Have you seen it?

CH: Wow, no, I don't know this movie. Rita Hayworth as a goddess?

Jupiter (Sebastien Hirel) Europe (Amira Akili): "That's the great force of myths, that there is no psychological evolution."
Jupiter (Sebastien Hirel) Europe (Amira Akili): "That's the great force of myths, that there is no psychological evolution."

AKT: I have not seen it in a very long time but I remember a dance sequence in a children's playground. Are there any movies based on myths that you like?

CH: As far as the relationship to myths goes, I would think of Resnais in a movie such as La Vie Est Un Roman, which is dealing more with Germanic myths like Tristan and Isolde. But Resnais in my opinion is also someone who is completely breaking from this idea of characters that have psychology. Pasolini or Straub and Huillet in their idea of having the population surrounding them re-play, recreate texts that are very ancient, they are also working in this form. For myths, there is one filmmaker working today whom I admire tremendously and that is Apichatpong Weerasethakul who also has this thing with the gods' complete strangeness.

AKT: Oh, yes, Uncle Boonmee [Who Can Recall His Past Lives], great example. That makes perfect sense. The beautiful race scene with Atalante on the hay barrels reminded me of Pina Bausch's Tanztheater.

Bacchus (Damien Chapelle): "It only touches our unconscious, not our consciousness."
Bacchus (Damien Chapelle): "It only touches our unconscious, not our consciousness."

CH: Cool! Very strange you say that because the guy [Erwan Larcher as Hippomène] is a young actor I really like and I worked with him on another project for the theatre. And I showed him Café Müller by Pina Bausch because I wanted him to go to the walls and fall. It's very strange, because we didn't think about Pina Bausch when we prepared this choreography. But you are right, four days before the shooting, they are training because everything is very choreographed. Vimala Pons, the young French actress [who plays Atalante], and he are so comfortable with their bodies because they are also part of a company where they do contemporary circus performance.

It's very rare to have French actors with whom you can really work on the body like that. The entire choreography of the lions in the mosque, we cut it a lot in the editing stage, but the whole thing, from the stripping to the arrival of Vénus [Keti Bicolli], this was one of the things that was most enjoyable for me to film.

AKT: What is next for you? What are you working on?

CH: I just finished the first part of the shoot of an adaptation of a very very famous 19th century French children's book, which is not very well-known here. Which is Les Malheurs De Sophie, The Misfortunes Of Sophie, by the Comtesse de Ségur. This was another challenge because this film's main characters are played by five-year-old girls. We'll shoot the second part this summer. The idea is to make a real film for children.

AKT: You challenge yourself and us in the most interesting ways. But no animals this time?

CH: No animals. The scenes with animals will be animated!

In part 1, Narcisse as a baby, studying Ovid as a young scholar of Latin, shooting in and around Nîmes and Montpellier, casting the gods and avoiding a cliché seaside Mediterranean look.

Metamorphoses is out in the UK now

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