No one can accuse Christophe Honoré of lacking ambition. Since the turn of the millennium, the French director has kept up a prodigious output, diving across topics at a rate of nearly one film a year for over a decade. By expanding his scope even further to take on Ovid’s epic poem, it appears he’s finally taken a bigger bite than is possible to consume. Undeniably attractive, Metamorphoses only manages to skate across the surface of such dense source material.
Loosely adapting parts of the 15 chapter original, Honoré, also on screenwriting duties, at least stays true to Ovid’s style. Dipping in and out of the original, the bulk of the story transports Europa’s entanglements with Jupiter and Bacchus to modern France. Europa (Amira Akili) is a school girl wise in the ways of the world. She’s initially picked up by Jupiter (Sébastien Hirel) who guides her through a selection of his illicit dalliances and schemes before she finds herself accompanied by the debauched Bacchus (Damien Chapelle) and his man devouring Bacchantes.
From here, an abundance of nature, nudity and startling transformations into a collection of wild beasts occur. The transitions between different passages are fluid, the mood swirling and dropping like the mist Jupiter can summon at will. These ancient Roman Gods fit in uncomfortably well in modern France; driving lorries, campaigning in grubby town squares and picking up impressionable young women in the cinema. Their sordid behaviour takes on an additional layer of grime when set against a familiar backdrop.
There’s far more to admire than actually enjoy though. The stop-start nature and surreal flow of Ovid’s work is all a little dull shorn of his words. It becomes a stream of pretty images that hint at depths the film cannot reach. Metamorphoses, lacking the lyrical meter of its written forebear, can’t help but feel a little pretentious. There’s not the substance to hold such flights of fancy in place.
Nor do the performances provide ample back-up. From a distance, the cast carry their roles well, achieving that plastic look of Gods who can take human form but never human souls. But when the camera comes in close to hold gazes, slip-ups occur. Under intense focus, the leading trio allow flickers of uncertainty to break free betraying their previous self-composure. Like the rest of his film, Honoré inadvertently allows flaws to creep into the open when he looks too hard.
Metamorphoses is a bold idea that fails to translate the surreal majesty of its source material. This may be a tale of transformation but the one it can’t make is from page to screen.