Kian Bergstrom reviews “Metamorphoses” on Cine-File Chicago playing at Facets Cinematheque

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Of all the pleasures I’ve earned, surely one of the most delicious and wonderful was reaching the point in high school when I was able to successfully struggle through selections of Ovid’s great anti-epic poem, Metamorphoses. Slipping through its sonorous, flowing rhythms, its images pendulating like crystal ornaments of tones arrested at the very moment a chord is about to cohere, reading Ovid’s linked collection of shapechanging, travel, and discovery had a way of enchanting the whole of the world around me, infusing every glisten on every dewy leaf and every rippling of muscle underneath the skin of person or beast with silent music and dolorous perfection. Each second was a cataract of change in a sea of permanent, aching, hungry flux. Watching Christophe Honoré’s movie, a gorgeous and haunting adaptation of Ovid’s book, somehow manages to capture that transformative power better than I ever would have predicted. Absent are the Harryhausen-like effects that might be expected in a narrative that features a handful of plucked-out eyeballs turning into peacocks, a woman transforming into a heifer, an elderly married couple becoming entwined trees, and a man rooting into the soil and reforming into a flower. Honoré is far too sophisticated and gifted a director to depend upon the tactics of amazement and displays of technical virtuosity that mere depiction would bring to this work. For his movie is not about the fact of metamorphosis but rather about the wonder of it. Taking his cue from Buñuel’s estranging of the natural world, Honoré plays a delicate game with on- and off-screen spaces, with unnervingly distorted landscapes and teasingly obfuscating framing that prevents the myriad becomings and unbecomings featured in the disconnected plotline from being explained away as aberrant or unusual or strange. The world of METAMORPHOSES is a world that is always turning into something, a world that isn’t punctuated with moments of magic but which is magic itself, a realm of impossibility and graceful, dignified shock. Within it, Honoré stages a series of remarkable moments each overstuffed with glowing meaning. A hunter accidentally catches sight of a forbidden nakedness. A naked man makes love to a clump of reeds. A blind, cursed doctor divines the future of an infant. Two lovers fuck so powerfully they become lions. Honoré’s images are rigorously carnal—even the plant life seems visually to yearn for erotic contact—and every shot is charged with the possibility that it might well be showing us the only things in the world at that moment that are not exploding. Like his source text, Honoré recognizes that this is no tale of innocence and joy but of need and horror and the agony of never finding any safe, stable, stillness, and his METAMORPHOSES is a work of terrible, incredible beauty, sadness, and power.

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