Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Metamorphoses: Honore Does Ovid

The ancient Greeks told shape-shifting stories millennia before Kafka and dozens of tawdry paranormal romance writers, but it was the Roman poet Ovid who really crystallized the theme. As France becomes increasingly multicultural (and Mediterranean), why shouldn’t the Greco-Roman gods reassert themselves, like Apollo in Star Trek? Christophe Honoré modernizes Ovid’s epic poem, envisioning the Olympians living in the grubby Parisian suburbs, just as randy and petty as they ever were in Metamorphoses (trailer here), which opens this Thursday in Brooklyn.

Europa is the daughter of immigrants living in the projects, but she is still a princess to Jupiter, a morally degenerate but roguishly charming truck driving. He makes no bones about abducting her and she is happy to go along for the ride. Of course, they will have to avoid his jealous wife Juno, especially when he explains what she did to Io, another princess who was unfortunately caught in a compromising position with Jupiter.

Over the course of several days, Europa will fall under and out of Jupiter’s spell, hear a bounty of stories, spend time with Bacchus, and get swept up in King Cadmus’s personality cult. Some vignettes are stronger than others, but their net effect compounds with each re-told myth. Frankly, it is eerily logical how aptly these tales of arbitrary cruelty and self-absorbed vanity fit in our current day and age.

Arguably, the two highlights depict the Juno’s blinding of the future oracle Tiresias (memorably played by Rachid O.) and the ill-fated romance of Atalanta and Hippomenes, initially fueled and then sabotaged by the goddess Venus. For extra bonus points, Honoré stages the scene of their supernaturally overheated love-making session on the floor of a store-front mosque, so stand by for the professional outrage police.

As Jupiter, Sébastien Hirel manages to be sinister (in a Joyce Carol Oates kind of way), but also displays the shortsighted immaturity of a man-child. That might sound rather unappealing, but it is a neat trick to pull off, rather in keeping with the mythological source material. Mélodie Richard plays Juno like a nag from Hades, again in keeping with Ovid, Edith Hamilton, and Rick Riordan. Amira Akili perfectly serves as a somewhat naïve audience surrogate, but frankly she looks disturbingly young for her sex scenes with Jupiter. On the other hand, Gabrielle Chuiton and Jean Courte lend the film a shot of poignant dignity as the proto-Christian Samaritans, Philemon and Baucis.

Despite, or maybe because of its messiness, Metamorphoses might be Honoré’s best film to date. Shrewdly, he avoids pedantic one-for-one parallels, striving to transpose the spirit of Ovid’s myths, more than the letter. He also keeps the physical transformations discretely off-camera, which actually heightens the sense of mystery. When it works, it works. Recommended for literate viewers, Metamorphoses screens five nights at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn, starting this Thursday (3/23) and opens a week-long run at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles this Friday (3/24).