The opening scenes, or prologue if you will, of Christophe Honoré’s Metamorphoses set the tone for the bewildering, somewhat grubby journey that is to follow. A hunter is running through a forest before being confronted by a naked, transgender person who turns him into a deer with a spray of magic dust. Hunter becoming hunted. Mythology updated, with scant exposition, as if the filmmaker is showing his wares, and if you don’t understand or go with it, then that’s your problem.
Primarily concerned with following Europa (Akili), a high school student “kidnapped” by Jupiter (Richard) and introduced to the ways of Bacchus (Chapelle) and Orpheus (Babluani), Honoré’s interpretation of Ovid’s epic poem is a nudity-filled, intertwining selection of stories depicting Gods falling in love with humans, and turning them into cows and the like.
Given the subject matter, you might think Metamorphoses would not be particularly French. But it is, very French in fact. Honoré has filled his elaborately conceived tale with more full-frontal nudity than you’ll find in your average class-less soft porn release, and enough subjective experimentation and dismissive arrogance to make you think he’s channelling Jean-Luc Godard himself, only with less style. The original text is a cascade of surreal-ness and metaphor-laden myths that translate poorly to the cinematic medium whoever the filmmaker might have been, and this is something Honoré never truly overcomes. Stunted, flippantly brief scenes of violence or impromptu sex nestle uncomfortably alongside lingering shots of brooding melancholy, or close-ups of naked flesh as the camera invasively fixates on the young cast. Very French indeed, and Honoré is either chest-puffingly proud of his nation’s use of nudity on screen, or simply voyeuristic in his desire to weigh down his story with as much as possible.
That you become increasingly frustrated with the visuals is telling. The script is both hindersome and vague in depicting the tales, and the cast never really convince in their given roles, as if they themselves are baffled by what they are being asked to do. Other than be naked that is.
As a work of art, Metamophoses carries many of the traits associated with highbrow French cinema, but never delivers on its ambitious premise. Too unwieldy, too cryptic and confusing to be enjoyed as a complete film, it doesn’t honour the work of the predecessors it so desperately wants to impress. Perhaps worth watching as an intellectual challenge, but otherwise is exactly the sort of film used to denigrate French cinema.
METAMORPHOSES / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CHRISTOPHE HONORÉ / STARRING: AMIRA AKILI, SÉBASTIEN HIREL, DAMIEN CHAPELLE, MÉLODIE RICHARD / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW