It feels like an exercise that is an illustration that looks like a transmutation passing for an adaptation in drag while clothing itself with cues of sensuality where there’s little more than a holographic reflection of flesh come true with some make belief bleeding. In reality, though, Christophe Honoré’s Metamorphoses uses its original more as an excuse than anything else, its primeval poet, author of what stands as the template of all experimental art there is, used as a pan flute to infuse a stranger’s breath while tuning a familiar voice. In the end, it all feels kinda false.
It all opens with Ovid’s words — and so it closes. Then, in-between a retelling hangs not, more like cherry-picking in Eden, shaking a handful of its more than 250 trees, only to juice the fruits at pleasure. It all starts with what looks like a prologue, with a young yet gullible hunter turned into its own prey by a transsexual goddess not in the mood for contingent voyeurs, particularly for those who take advantage of the gratuitous glimpse — or, if coming back to Ovid, Actaeon’s turning into a stag by the meek exhibitionist Diana. The fact that here, in Honoré’s site, the goddess bathes alone, with no nymphs, no aids to cover her, revealed as a poised trans, throwing gleeful dust rather than water to punish the holder of those eyes that won’t blink, kind of sets the tone to an adaptation that constantly benefits from its own anachronisms by setting its tale up to date, up to a dubious now that, nonetheless, feels all too present, as the fringes of those scenes, divine as they are, seem to take place at a parallel sphere of the universe.
And so we meet Europa (Amira Akili), after the prologue, the character that will be, in this film’s narrative, the central one, the one where all the other ones will connect. Whether her experience or just her ears, hearing a story from one of her hosts, horny gods wanting to bed her, make it Jupiter (Sébastien Hirel) or his mercurial son, Bacchus (Damien Chapelle, “Planetarium”), it is Europa who holds the silver thread to this labyrinth, it is her the Ariadne to this reverie told on acid — something of which Ovid could dispense (both acid and a central character), for the poet was working directly with myths, in the nude, to tell the history of the human condition, and thus of humanity itself. Honoré, on the other hand, seems to be working with characters to make an essay on the human body (and thus of humanity itself): The tales of the soul ain’t that of the flesh.
While the essay lasts, it sticks: It is the body and its capacity to change into any body. It is an essay of the body in nature, that is the body in time, that is nature in time, that brings and takes what each season sets to move away. While the essay lasts, it sticks, like the scene described above washing over what the body trans-forms and on it is trans-formed. And thus all these ring back to another level, as a piece of the original is transposed and then transformed into another thing: From time to myth to story to poem to film. Metamorphoses hence retains a key dialectic, a bodily one all throughout Ovid’s vision, that will move the whole narrative forward and around: the dialectic of the hunter and its prey. From the start it is a continuous shift. The hunter preys upon/the prey sets to hunt/the hunter is preyed upon/the prey is set to hunt. While the essay lasts, it is like looking at nature seasoning the times.
But then the essay stops, and it is watered down, right since the moment in which Europa comes in, which is when the whole focus shifts, and, while the dialectic is somehow held, it comes again to the dithyrambic, dithyramblic, rambling plea of gods playing in a pond of mortals that swim aimlessly within the winding waters of their desires. We get that with Europa right from the get-go, and then with all the other female mortals (Io, Atalante, etc.). The rhythm is toned by a rampant cry for help, for “my” desire is about to get “me” lost — lust. Here the film swings, as with most of Honoré’s films (notably “Love Songs” and “At Bathe”) between a voyeuristic and a masturbatory cry, taking turns between the audience’s eye and the filmmaker’s hand.
The digressional style, staple in Ovid’s masterpiece, is in Metamorphoses intermittent and tonally irregular. Some comparisons had been thrown already between Honoré’s work and poets like Cocteau or, more notably, Pasolini. In all truth, however, his style is closer to Ozon’s or Dolan’s; It is irregularity steaming from a boiling talent, as natural as the beauties they’re obsessed with depicting — and often just as vacuous. What made Cocteau or Pasolini (especially this latter) immortal artists was the tense balance they strived to create between their obsessions and their political clarity, between sheer desire and social responsibility — which never quite became ideological or pamphleteering; on the contrary, they’d often verged on cynicism, when, lights off, it always felt like a hopeless cause, all the more essential in its hopelessness. This, at least, we can be thankful for with works like Honoré’s. No pamphlet here, but no hopeless urge either — only visual candy.
Without the poetry, the myths that Ovid tells (and pretty much all ancient mythology, notoriously the Greek) relates nothing but stories about violence and domination, with a special place for sexual violence: Assault, rape, cheating, etc. What survives, nevertheless, of that mythology in works like Ovid’s is, will always be, the poetry, its balance so crystal clear it has even survived the lack of an original transcript. So superb it must had been if its simile has aged so fine. And this Metamorphoses makes that clear: What those myths are (historical setting aside) without poetry. His transposition to the present era hardly ever gets past cosmetic decisions.
History and story, they both must overcome the titanic force of time while telling it inside. What a titanic task to tell the history of time through myth, for myth, in its very root, muthos, suggests the change by way of what was, for centuries, its greatest paradox: The fixity of destiny, the telling of a future that has always been past. In Honoré’s film, though, this history is trivialized tremendously, particularly with what means to be the hippest of all retellings: The story of Narcissus by way of Tiresias. This one, unlike all the others, ends it in a vacuous (this film’s whiny Bacchus making himself heard) stare to the camera that lands in an even emptier statement: “It’s only me.” Indeed.
Yes, I guess without the soul life and death are nothing but a change of state; without the soul, the body is but the empty trap that wraps every single form — and, without a soul, so this film, Metamorphoses, feels, an exercise on, more than of, form.