Metamorphoses appears to have very little in common with Beloved, your last film...
I’ve often felt the desire to construct a new film in opposition to the previous film, or films. After having worked on novelesque films with well-known actors, after knowingly citing the great models, I felt like entering completely unfamiliar waters, which is rather new for me. I needed to escape from romantic fantasy, from tales about characters that follow their respective biographical and psychological evolutions. I think I wanted to shed the need for characters, in the traditional sense of the term.
Did you need a change of scenery?
It’s actually more a question of finding another form, one that can question my own work... To try and follow a form that creates a new way of composing a story and displaying the body. Some time ago, I was reading Russell Banks’s last novel, Lost Memory of Skin. In it, he features a quote from Ovid: “My intention is to tell of bodies changed to different forms.” I took this sentence as a plan of action and returned to its source by rereading The Metamorphoses. This sentence resonated in me: in it I saw the very definition of cinema, or at least of a possible cinema, and a direct imperative to perform the experiment. It is a question I often ask myself: what is it about film that attracts me, if not metamorphosing reality into something new? This was a challenge that interested me, that could allow me to escape the illusion of realism. Since realism was not a concern for the film, it allowed me to take a look at the Greek myths as told by a Roman.
How exactly did you work?
The Metamorphoses is gigantic. There are several hundred fables, and I obviously couldn’t keep everything. My first concern was to choose the episodes allowing me to compose a single tale, to select what could be a part of what I wanted to say. I took around twenty stories for my storyline. Within each story, I remained faithful to Ovid. What required more work was linking them together, embedding them: I wanted to go from one story to another by choosing the right people.
Is there a narrative thread running through your film?
I concentrated on the confrontation between the gods and mortals over three stages. First, the encounter with Jupiter, who attracts Europa, and tells his own story: it’s the self-portrait of Jupiter as seducer, as Pygmalion, as initiator. Then comes Bacchus, and everything at that point is about belief: one must believe the tale of the gods because they can avenge the disbelief of certain men or certain women. Finally, Orpheus arrives, and I follow him in his proselytizing, his teaching, his predictions. A cult forms around him until his death – obviously violent – at the hands of the Maenads. To tie these three moments together, I looked for a single point of view that would unite them all along a common thread. This is how I imagined Europa: a very young woman initiated by three different characters. She watches them, follows them, and relates her experience, her encounters with the gods, with the myths... The idea was to give this character back her original innocence, her first morning.
Was there a particular guiding principle when preparing the film?
It was important for me to not shoot Metamorphoses as a cultural object, or a book of old images divorced from our present reality. I was not looking to make a clever re-enactment. I wanted to confront these tales with France, as I might film this country today. I began to cast for the film, but in an unorthodox way: few of the people appearing in the film are true, professional actors. I wanted to work with people who had no experience of being filmed, that were either very young, or foreign men and women. I didn’t imagine – or, rather, I imagined all too well – Louis Garrel as Jupiter... So I took a perilous leap founded on the spectators’ suspension of disbelief. Because the “actors” they see on-screen... they’re seeing them for the first time and have to believe in them. Those who have no prior experience of acting are often stranger than actors, they’re not concerned with a style of acting based on conventions founded on a contract of appreciation with spectators. They let themselves be looked at in their solitude, their own truth, all of which escapes verisimilitude. I needed that strangeness. It corresponded to the strangeness of the Greek gods suddenly appearing in contemporary France.
What is contemporary about Greek mythology for us today?
This film is also a way of paying back the Greek debt! They have given us so much. Greece isn’t in debt, it is our contemporary world that owes Greece and its gods. I had this idea in mind, which inverses the pressures of the current economic system, in the name of history and the myths. I therefore wanted to talk about Greek heritage in contemporary France: we come from Greece far more than we do from America. We can (we must!) assert this as a rebirth of paganism! My wager consisted in saying, and showing, that these myths are the – sometimes unconscious – foundations of our current society, a sort of palimpsest, or subtext today that people, if they just scratch the surface a little, can retrieve quite easily. It is a culture that does not want to die, that refuses to be erased, and that I put out there for young French people to rediscover. I wanted something indecisive, a mix of historical periods and people.
Which is the reason why you chose the suburbs as the place where gods and men coexist...
The word that came to me during location scouting, and then during the shoot, was “peri-urban.” I wanted to find traces of nature in the city, traces that have resisted aggressive urbanization. Or a conserved stretch of nature, but right next to the city: on the side of highway exits and access roads, malls, wastelands... This is where I could define a fictional territory that has been rarely filmed, or rarely visited. This is where I could tell my viewer, “You’ve never seen Greek gods because you’ve never come here...”
One gets the impression there is a strong contrast between characters...
I would say it’s a “very populated” film, with different body types ranging from a baby to an old couple. People in the film are fat, tiny, beautiful and ugly. I had to find a simpler way of seeing them. I wasn’t expecting them to act in a “natural” style, but something that was as close as possible to them. No one speaks comfortably in the film. Jupiter, for instance, is a strange and attractive man from a foreign place, but still very close, speaking in an unusual way, with a lot of style but never looking anyone in the eyes. He refuses conventions. This way of avoiding clichés fascinates Europa who, in her case, cannot be pinned down to conventional representation, which often makes her out to be a young beautiful, rather Nordic blonde... In the film, like in the myth, she is truly torn between the East and the West.
One of the risks the film takes is with the representation of nudity...
With Ovid, nudity poses no problem. It is wholly generous and beautiful. Obviously, in a current-day suburban city, with its housing projects, this is more problematic for a young woman. But, I was surprised: a lot of the young people I selected were very comfortable with it, undoubtedly because the film and the shoot protected them. I never met with any resistance. Everyone liked being nude in nature and being filmed that way. Even next to a highway. The film in no way aims at promoting a “return to nature,” but wishes to display the body in a hedonistic way. Nudity is not a return but a prerequisite, the primary condition for men and women. Initiation is founded upon the possession of a body – one’s own or someone else’s. Knowledge of the gods, of myths, of history, of origins, is also founded upon the carnal encounter. The scenes featuring nudity, sensuality, or sexuality, all talk about this: it is a means of accessing knowledge, both of the Other, and of the world. It is a powerful experience: the corporeal confrontation with the gods renders mortals unfit to return to the life they led beforehand.
What were the choices made when staging the nude scenes?
Natural and tender. I wanted something simple, direct, and above all to not film a performance, or make a challenge out of it, but to imagine these scenes as privileged moments, where meaning is revealed naturally, evidently. It’s a type of nudity that is non- provocative, and I hope sensual and enticing.
And, for the scenes of metamorphosis?
I also wanted to flee the idea of performance. These metamorphoses are not visual transformations, using excessive make-up or CGI. This isn’t a conservative position, but an aesthetic, an ethical choice: not making one see, but making one believe. This film in no way belongs to the fantasy genre. It is more of a manifesto for the most simple belief in the “magical” power of cinema – precisely, its power to metamorphose. In this respect, editing is the most appropriate tool because it is the most effective: bringing together and splicing two consecutive shots of a man and a stage, Io and a heifer, three young women and three bats, two old people and two knotted tree trunks... One must make an effort to believe in order for this to work. Otherwise, everything falls apart. My film is ultimately constructed by the spectator, through fear but also through magic. Furthermore, there is a great diversity of metamorphoses in Ovid, a variety of tones, of pitch, and my own cinematic tools of montage, collage, off-screen space, the relationship to sound, all allow me to vary the effects. It was a lot of fun, including the CGI effects we used for certain scenes, in our own unique way.
How did the shoot unfold?
On set it could be very complicated, especially for the amateurs. They were often nude, outdoors in a natural setting, in situations that were very far from anything they were used to dealing with. But everyone was very enthusiastic, joyful, and patient. Everybody believed in it. I knew I had to remain stubbornly and assertively faithful to my vision. I had a credo, taken from St. Paul, “One must understand the invisible with the visible...” And, it was especially important for me to not shy away from the true incongruities in the film... It is also what interested and amused me: venturing out onto unstable and unknown terrain, doing something that, in theory, I didn’t know how to do...
Seeing beauty in the confrontation between myths and men, in the relationship between nude bodies and nature, you had any number of possible references, namely Pasolini...
Obviously, Pasolini and his “Trilogy of Life”. Thanks to him, it is still possible to think we can escape the fatality of a prosaic cinema in order to reach a more poetic cinema. That is his legacy. But I must say, I more consciously thought of Godard, the Godard of Carmen, and Hail Mary. Of bringing an ancient, mythical beauty into the present, bringing contemporary beauty closer to the ancient myths. These are the shots that kept me afloat during shooting. Or, better yet, Youssef Chahine and how incredibly happy he is to believe... his pleasure in getting people believe through cinema. I felt right at home with the idea of taking a simple palm tree and giving people Hollywood, to accept both the experience of beauty and of popular myth.
Interviewed by Antoine de Baecque