It’s Pasolini meets Lars von Trier meets Tarkovsky – a narrative structure that not only honours Ovid’s organisational technique of structuring stories around one character, but also bears a passing resemblance to Nymphomaniac and Charlotte Gainsborough’s almost mythic journey. There’s cinematography by Andre Chemetoff that keeps true to the Arcadian pastoral and a romanticised lush environment to be found in the Roman poet’s best known work. Suffice to say, the opening sequences of Christophe Honore’s Métamorphoses are mesmerising.
It would be impossible for the French director to squeeze in the hundreds of Ovid’s myths and to recount the history up to the time of Julius Caesar into 101 minutes, so his solution is simple- he sticks with Europa visualised as a bored schoolgirl (here played by Amira Akili as a Phoenician of African descent) and follows her story as she at first encounters Jupiter (Sebastien Hirel), Bacchus (Damian Chapelle, hilariously kitted out in garish shirt, trunks and sneakers) and Orpheus (George Bablucini). Set in contemporary multiracial France and often reminding us of the fragmentary beauty of nature within our cityscapes, there are meanings and rituals existing in Ovid’s poem that some will find resonates with global issues dominating our thoughts now- pointless shootings and beheadings for some higher cause, extremism, the question of sexuality, hermaphroditism, the difference between male and female orgasms and their qualities, reincarnation, tribal cultures and communities in multiracial but perhaps intolerant and discriminatory societies.
Yet, in spite of all this, Metamorphoses, though touching upon such subjects with depth, still manages to be a simple, ritualistic and beautiful film poem. There are no special effects- when humans ‘metamorphise’ into heifer, deer or bats or lions, it is done with a simple cut or a pan away, Narcissus looking into the water to see his mirror self instead looks straight down the camera lens with a touch of meta theatricality, and true to form, there’s storytelling that takes the audience away and out of the story world of the film and enables them to transcend with the characters through a further act of the imagination.
Of a film with many meanings, the most poignant is that of its title. The change in Baucis and Philemon, who can’t bear to be parted even in death, transforming into interlocking trees. There’s also change in Europa’s own personal development as she seeks to find love, but finds something else, whilst all around her, death, violence, sex, hardship and beauty rant and rage as the differences between the interfaces of the physical, mental and spiritual universes are gently traced and explored by the filmmaker.
A visual poem of great beauty, Metamorphoses opens at London Film Festival on October 9. You can buy tickets here.