Review: Metamorphoses dir. Christophe Honore

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In a land of whimsical gods and terrifying monsters, the only constant is change.

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Christophe Honore boldly takes Ovid’s classic narrative poem of the Roman gods and brings it into the modern world in a heady blend of lush cinematography, alluring erotica and dreamy violence. This new take on Metamorphoses follows young student Europa (Amira Akili) as she plays truant and meets the devilishly charming Jupiter (Sebastien Hirel), and embarks on a journey as she encounters timeless tales of gods and mortals and acquaints herself with Bacchus (Damien Chapelle) and Orpheus (George Babluani), going on her own voyage of transformation as she grows wiser from the lessons learnt from these cautionary and tragic tales.

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Much of the mood in Metamorphoses is evoked by the thoughtful, verdant shots that characterise the entire film. When overt sex scenes and full frontal nudity come into the picture, the beautiful bodies make for a strange, almost oneiric contrast juxtaposed against the crisp, palatial landscapes. That’s not to say Metamorphoses isn’t without its urban elements; Honore ensures that there is a constant reminder that we are in a modern world, from its opening scene of the tale of Actaeon, updated to have a nude Diana bathing in the water from a jerrycan, or the Minyades spending their days watching films in half empty cinemas, while some of the gods even don shoes from Nike. A familiar yet fresh take on Tiresias paints him as a transgender doctor in a hospital, an infuriated Juno tossing acid onto his eyes to make him the blind prophet he’s best known as.

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But these urbanities are rarely the site of change, and Honore consistently sets his reimaginations in or near bodies of water, themselves a symbol of transformation. Whether it’s the azure blue lake where Hermaphrodite finds himself fused with a water nymph, or the water Jupiter wets Europa with before ravishing her, the significance of water in Metamorphoses is so huge and undeniable that Honore practically devotes entire sequences of different shots of water from time to time, and one can virtually feel a cool splash from time to time as one sits through the film.

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A personal favourite reimagination would be Honore’s take on the tale of Ovid rescuing Eurydice. Ovid is now underwater, instead of hell, and as he attempts to float Eurydice back to the surface, he is distracted from breaking past the surface by a sea of bodies (presumably the followers of Bacchus) and turns to look at Eurydice, who runs out of breath and sinks back down into the murky depths. All the while, the soundtrack is muffled, as if we ourselves were underwater, and there’s a genuine emotional edge to the entire scene as we mourn the loss of Orpheus’ doomed bride, a quiet terror brooding from the claustrophobia of being underwater.

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In reimagining Metamorphoses for a modern world, Honore takes certain liberties with his portrayals of the gods as well. Bacchus takes on a distinctly crazed, almost threatening personality, obsessed with the complete devotion of his followers, while Orpheus becomes something of a mad heretic after losing Eurydice, denouncing the gods and spurning womankind. The tasteful erotica is well tempered by the gravity of the violence or senseless punishment that often follows. Hippomenes’ courtship of Atalanta takes place in slow motion as he chases after her through puddles and through shots from above, and their uninhibited sex in the temple of Cybele an arousing affair. Yet the moment they look up at the looming figure of a seething Cybele, there’s a distinguishable chill in the air from their expressions of pure regret as they transform offscreen into lions.

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Honore has done an incredible job of bringing Metamorphoses to life, pulsating with an artistic energy that infuses the film with a synaesthesia struggling to break its way past the screen, as the audience feels every thrust, every tiny death, every pang of guilt that courses through its characters. One can almost feel their insides transforming into something quite different upon accepting the sheer force of unrelenting fate in the hands of the gods, and by the time the film ends, there’s a kind of numbing melancholy only the very best arthouse films instil in viewers. Christophe Honore has created a Metamorphoses for the times, at times quietly reflective, at others whimsically mischievous, but always delivering tragically exquisite scene after heartbreaking scene.

Metamorphoses will be released in Picturehouse Cinemas across the UK on 22nd August.

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