Director Christophe Honore’s cinematic choices are as fascinating as they are unique. He often subverts conventional sexual norms through his films – he was even able to do this in his last venture – which was essentially quite a straightforward take on the big budget ensemble musical. Thus, Honore’s penchant for subverting sexual discourse and Ovid’s magnum opus Metamorphoses seem like a match made in heaven. After all, who can prove to a better vehicle for challenging our understanding of sexuality than the gods themselves?
However, this isn’t a conventional adaptation of Ovid’s poem. Honore decides to situate the text in contemporary France – where the line between the realm of the gods and that of humanity is blurred. Mortals, gods and demi-gods all inter-mingle in this oddly fascinating, yet obtuse universe. The final result is that Honore’s implicit commentary on sexual discourse has less than the intended impact due to the contextual chaos of a shared universe that all characters inhabit.
The radical nature of this adaptation is evident from the very beginning. Honore chooses Europa as the narrative vehicle for the story to unfold – arguable one of the most passive characters from the original text.1 In making Europa the narrative epicentre of the film, Honore gives her newfound agency that she wasn’t afforded in the original text. She questions Jupiter and his motives, asking him why she should believe him and his stories. And in turn, Jupiter gives her a choice – it’s up to her to believe in them or not. This isn’t a straightforward luring and seduction of Europa by Jupiter. Honore’s Europa has a lot more scope for self-determination than Ovid’s Europa. To a large extent – Europa decides the course of the narrative: she chooses to stay with the gods and not return to her father, she chooses to believe in Jupiter (as opposed to being blindly ‘seduced’ by him). Hence, in this new light, her sexual liaison with Jupiter becomes an act of sexual liberation and her being able to exercise her agency. Honore quite masterfully inverts the original narrative. He is able to ‘transform’ an extremely passive character from the original text to a centrally active one and also imbue an implicit contemporary message about female agency and sexuality.
The strength of Metamorphoses lies in Honore’s ability to draw parallels from the original text to the contemporary challenges that we face when debating questions of sexuality. For example, the story of Tiresias in Honore’s film serves as a reminder for the continued vilification and negation of trans narratives and lived experiences today. When Juno confronts Tiresias about his ‘arrogance’ for knowing the pleasures of being both – a man and a woman, Honore frames it as a veiled attack on trans experiences and narratives in contemporary society. Juno’s blinding of Tiresias and the inability of Jupiter to stop her has powerful implications for trans narratives in contemporary society.
It’s also interesting how Honore de-constructs the role of the gods in relation to their human counterparts. Ironically, even though gods have seemingly infinite power – they can do anything they want, they are imprisoned by their own personalities and the roles they ought to fulfil. Jupiter (brilliantly played by Sebastien Hirel) is rather aloof and needs Europa’s constant questioning of his motives to not be totally subsumed by lust. Bacchus (another stellar performance by Damien Chapelle) is insecure about the fact that the other gods and humans don’t take him seriously. He turns vengeful to prove his might as a god as much as to deflect his insecurities. In this shared universe, the gods need humans more than the humans need the gods.
Despite the contemporary setting, there are some scenes where the spectacle of Ovid’s fantastical vision is retained on the big screen. The slow transformation of Argus’s eyes into peacock feathers is a visual spectacle, exquisitely captured in all its detail by the director of photography Andre Chemetoff. The fantasy of the myths is retained and although it ultimately feels jarring from a narrative point of view, the visual detailing behind each transformation is something to behold.
The contemporary setting works in the film’s favour in some cases, but is also the cause of much of the film’s problems. There are some myths that feel out-of-place in an updated setting – for example, Narcissus as a skater-boy in contemporary France? It definitely is interesting but it doesn’t work beyond the initial curiousness. It was also confusing to see a naked Pan run across the fields on a giant screen wearing sneakers. The intended meaning of some these myths gets lost because of the emphasis on the setting, as opposed to the ideology. In fact, the contemporary setting becomes a distraction at times, which takes away from the impact of the scenes.
It was also disappointing to find that Europa, though infused with agency in terms of her character, is portrayed quite placidly and unconvincingly by Amira Akili. Her one-tone portrayal is unable to do justice to Honore’s re-interpretation. A more nuanced performance would’ve surely had more of an impact and carried the audience through.
Despite these inconsistencies, when Metamorphoses gets the tone right, it creates a unique blend of fantasy and social commentary about perceptions of sexuality today. The way Honore draws parallels between Ovid’s work and contemporary society to question the status quo about discussions of sexual discourse make this a fascinatingly brave piece of cinema.
Around the Staff