Reviewed by Andy Zachariason
In the opening scene a young man is hunting in the wilderness and stumbles upon a transgender woman. He stares for a moment and looks as if he’s had an epiphany, only to then sprint away. He drops his gun, a symbol of manhood, and the camera lingers on it. The film then delves into the metaphorical as he takes the form of an animal. His awakening of sexual identity leads the film into a predator/prey metaphor. Throughout there’s a recurring thread of humans as animals when confronted with their sexuality by internal and external forces. It’s a short on–the-nose opening but also one that works as a cipher to the rest of film, which delves into more elongated abstract stories about sexuality and identity.
The stories echo, interpret, and recreate Greek mythology. This ambition is often out of the film’s grasp, but the reach is admirable and consistently interesting. Conflicts between iconic Greek characters play flat and lack ethos, but the ambition begins to click when the characters are silent and the visuals and music take over.
The film is limited by budget, but this limitation makes for some inventive sequences that articulate the film’s ideas in intriguing ways. A swooning, sinister score paints over one of the film’s most evocative scenes when a woman gets out of her car and is engulfed by fog while a man follows her into a field of grass.
This focus on natural imagery is the most prominent visual throughout the film. Nature surrounds characters, especially in their sexual encounters. The second scene follows a lonely girl named Europa as buildings surround her in the background. An impressive shot pushes past the buildings to gaze upon her hidden in the grass with a man. The camera focuses on bodies of all shapes, genders, and sizes. Landscapes appear to evoke the sexual identity of these Greek myths existing in our modern world. The film achieves more in this abstract weirdness than in its dramatic conflicts and modern context of Greek characters.
Metamorphoses plays a bit like if The Cremaster Cycle had a baby with The Lobster. It lacks those films’ formal technique but is born from the same creative curiosity. The elliptical vignettes have ups, downs and occasionally lose focus (I don’t know that they add to each other in the end), but it’s never not trying to achieve something interesting.
These tales of Greek myth and sexual identity achieve mixed degrees of success and failure. Some are too on-the-nose with their metaphors and allusions to Greek myth to cut through emotionally or in a satisfyingly abstract way, but the few that take their time to build a study of sexual identity and character (Europa’s thread is the best example) fulfill the promise of the film’s opening.
Metamorphoses is an intriguing film that works when it naturally builds characters through action and then places them in abstractions. There are enough moments just out of reach enough that you have to work for and come to your own understanding and interpretation. You won’t come away changed or moved by metamorphoses, but you’ll be left with ideas to ponder.
Director: Christophe Honoré
Writers: Christophe Honoré (screenplay), Ovid (book)
Stars: Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Mélodie Richard
Metamorphoses is released in UK cinemas on the 22nd August as part of Picturehouse Cinemas’ Discover Tuesday series