In Metamorphoses, writer-director Christophe Honoré tries to domesticate, if not neuter, the strangeness of Ovid’s classic tales, specifically into overtly narrative skits where gods are 21st-century people doing everyday things: playing basketball, going to the doctor, swimming in a lake. Although the uncanny kernel of Ovid’s epic retelling of Roman myths—where humans become objects, fungi become human, and men become women—remains part of the film’s plot, Honoré forces a stiffly traditional storytelling framework onto material that would have been better served through more experimental means. The most beguiling aspects of Ovid’s tales, their surreal-ness, are stunted by a theatrical delivery more invested in what happens in these stories than in their eerie metaphors and sensuous textures.
In the film, Jupiter (Sébastien Hirel) and Europa (Amira Akili) are young lovers prone to public nudity and outdoor sex, Narcissus (Arthur Jacquin) is a skateboarding teen who’s wont to break hearts, and Juno (Mélodie Richard) and Tiresias (Rachid O.) are a couple plunged into crisis by his desire to become a woman so as to experience more sexual pleasure. Honoré is particularly intent on showing us how French cinema is unashamed of frontal nudity for boys, girls, and babies alike, as well as depictions of impromptu sex in bucolic settings. All of which ends up feeling forced, redundant, and beside the point: What if the camera had been allowed to actually survey the pores, blemishes, hairs, orifices, and—given that the material is rooted in Ovid—eyeballs of those on screen without a rush for plot advancement?
A playful usage of differing temporalities that Ovid employed throughout his Metamorphoses would have certainly been more gripping here if Honoré had preserved the logic of the myths and transposed them to contemporary life to the point of purposeful misrecognition. The fascinating elements of Ovid’s reveries are more powerfully translated when the narrative all but shuts off and Honoré lets the images alone—not the words—do the work. There’s enough drama in the mere visualization of these literary myths.
When Europa grabs a whole bunch of eye balls from someone’s body and casts them toward the sky in slow motion, it’s as though she were throwing dice, evoking the bone-throwing ape from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In another all-to-brief, yet breathtaking, moment where the camera decides to simply observe rather than quicken the narrative, the Orpheus myth is enacted entirely under water. With the actors literally unable to speak, we’re forced to absorb the strangeness of Ovid’s tales without worrying about whether we’re correctly matching the adaptation to the original myth that precedes it.