The Movie Waffler New Release Review - METAMORPHOSES | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - METAMORPHOSES

Contemporary retelling of Ovid's epic fable.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Christophe Honore

Starring: Amira Akili, Sebastien Hirel, Melodie Richard, Damien Chapelle, George Babluani


We underestimate stories at our own peril, as narrative is the framework in which we understand our own humanity, the supercontext in which we measure our potential, and also our failings. All major religions are based upon an instructive science of fables and fairytales, and for the rest of us, the repetitive rhythms of genre (soap opera, romcoms, horror et al) return us over and over to established narratives which explore the more pressing priorities of existence (community, sex, life/death et al). If we were to try and trace Western narrative art back to an impossible urtext, then after wading through Shakespeare and Chaucer, then across through Europe via Dante and co, we’d arrive at 8 AD and Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an imposing epic which blends myth, history and dactylic hexameter, and which is arguably the most influential poetic work in Western culture, encompassing love, morality and the human capacity to develop through experience.


Metamorphoses, un film de Christophe Honore, is a contemporary retelling of several of Ovid’s stories. Set in a modern France where people carry Lidl bags and some of the action takes place behind the back of a Carrefour, Honore’s picaresque begins with a lad in a high-viz jacket belting it through a forest. The tone is set when the ill-fated fella happens upon a sexy M2F transgender (naked, with a proud variety of bits and bobs on display) in the copse, who promptly throws some glitter over high-viz and transforms him into a deer. At this point you’re in seventh heaven: a playful, sensual take on Ovid, using millennia old verse to explore the fluidity of sexual identity and, what’s more, the relatively modern phenomena of transgenderism, rescuing the discussion of non-cis sexual realisation from angsty tumblr posts and clueless broadsheet think pieces. I’m in!

Alas, to quote the lyrical Roman himself, ‘first appearances deceive many’, and the over-excited climax of the film’s opening leads to a tired, post-coital ramble of lustrous but dull sexual imagery and a humdrum diminishing of poetry which has, for centuries, previously stood above the Western canon like a pair of massive intertwining oak and linden tree trunks. Plot wise, Honore’s film is nominally a reconfiguration of Europa’s story, and here the Phoenician is represented as an innocent high school girl (Amira Akili) who bunks class to meet up with (is abducted by) Jupiter (Sebastien Hirel) to, through a series of trials and errors, undergo the typical youthful sexual/spiritual awakening which is so beloved of pervy old film makers looking for an excuse to shoot young people in the buff. In between bouts of shagging and graphic fingering, Jupiter tells Europa stories, ostensibly based on that of the OG Metamorphoses, but which basically involve more bouts of shagging and graphic fingering, presumably as a sop towards modernisation a la mode. To give an example of how embarrassingly middle aged Honore’s attempts to get down-with-the-kids are, the Narcissus segment portrays the titular character as the best basketball player on the block (urban!), but who ends up falling to his death off a skyscraper in a suicide bid (edgy!). At a time when youthful vanity is devastatingly enacted through instagram, selfies and body image dysmorphia, surely someone could have come up with an idea with more relevance?


Perhaps as a balm against the film’s grim paucity of imagination, Honore glosses his film with frequent nudity. A keen subscriber to the grubby school of if-in-doubt-get-'em-out, when the film’s plot begins to sag, which it often does, Honore attempts to distract us with another lingering shot of pert breasts, trimmed bush and impressive peni. Otherwise, the iconography in general is telling too, with Honore’s imagery subjectively hewn from modern homo-erotic fantasy as much as Latin verse: Jupiter abducts Europe from a truck stop in a big lorry, and the manifest outdoor congress has the veneer of idealised cottaging. It’s all very exploitative and unsavoury in its portrayal: for the most part, Honore’s actors are amateur, and their discomfort in their nudity is painfully obvious at times. Reading what my contemporaries have to say on the film (which has been knocking about since 2014, but is only receiving wider distribution now), at least three old soaks use the word ‘daring’ (or synonyms of) to describe Metamorphoses’ concentrated depiction of awkward, youthful nudity. In a world of sexting and readily available internet porn, there really isn’t anything transgressive about shooting simulated sex and meaningless close ups of tits, especially when such imagery has all the artistic resonance of a Page 3 photoshoot (or perhaps, with the film’s nomination at the Venice Film Festival, the ingenious endgame was to flatter and titillate aged film critics with what is essentially pretentious porn-but-not-really-porn?).


Art lies by its own artifice however, and it is arguable that Ovid’s focus was similarly erotic. But while Metamorphoses may well be a bit rapey, it is certainly very ropey. The overriding theme of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that of, um, metamorphosis, finding meaning and metaphor in transformation and artifice, ‘to speak of forms changed into new bodies’ is completely undermined by Honore who, with his trademark lingering close ups, gives nubile flesh a corpulent permanency. And, in terms of narrative, Metamorphoses reduces the effervescent melodies of Ovid’s verse to a flat reinterpretation that is distinctly one-note in its lack of variety: each segment looks and feels interchangeably the same as the last. When we consider of the great modern retellings of timeless narratives (wonders such as Ten Things I Hate About You, say, which is the Arabian Nights via Shakespeare, a fella who knew a thing or two about repurposing Ovid), we think of texts that use myth and established dynamics to say something hopefully entertaining, and perhaps relevant, about the context in which they’re viewed in. Sadly, Honore’s underestimation of Ovid, this stale smorgasbord of sex and sleaze, is a silly karaoke cover version where you wonder if the artist has even heard the original.

Metamorphoses is in UK cinemas August 22nd.