The Metamorphoses is one of the greatest poems Latin Antiquity has handed down to us. At 11,995 verses, it is also the longest, spread over fifteen volumes. Ovid began writing it in the year 3, CE, when he was 46 years old. Five years later, for reasons unknown, he was exiled by order of Emperor Augustus to Tomi, from which he was never to return. Out of desperation, he burned his manuscript, but copies of his masterpiece were already in circulation. His success was immediate, and has never slackened since. The Metamorphoses are one of the sources of inspiration for a great deal of medieval literature. Among others, Shakespeare studied them closely and often found inspiration (especially for A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The Metamorphoses is both a collection of tales and an encyclopedia. The magnitude of its agenda, which justifies the size of the work, can be summed up in four verses: “My intention is to tell of bodies changed / To different forms; the gods, who made these changes, / Will help me – or so I hope so – with a poem / That runs from the world’s beginnings to our own days.”
Ovid’s ambition therefore comes back to composing a sort of universal history that he more or less divides into three great sections. The first takes us from the chaos of the origins up until Perseus, founder of Mycenae; the second, focussing on the Argonauts and Hercules, ends at the dawn of the Trojan War; and the last one, from the heroic age sung about by Homer, to the Rome of Augustus, who is himself promised this ultimate and sublime metamorphosis of divinization. All in all, Ovid tells nearly 250 fables of metamorphoses through his more than ten thousand verses. Some are relatively famous and have inspired many poets, painters, and sculptors: Actaeon devoured by his own pack of dogs (admirable painting by Titian at the Tate Gallery in London – the stag head hunter seems to dissolve into the vague half-light of the forest, while Diana, stone-faced in the foreground, draws her bow); Narcissus in love with his reflection, who eventually gives birth to a flower (in the Louvre, Poussin offers an unforgettably subtle interpretation: in the background, Echo the nymph is almost nothing more than a shadow on a rock); Daphne becoming a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s embrace (extraordinary sculpture by Bernini at the Villa Borghese, in Rome: the nymph’s spread-out fingers extending into marble leaves so thin they are translucent). Other episodes are only known by specialists.
Adapting The Metamorphoses cannot be done by arbitrarily choosing this or that pleasant tale. One must determine a point of view through which (and, more deeply, from which) the poetic thread can unfurl without breaking. The film must impose its laws, exactly like the poet imposes a voice through which all is said and all depends.
These laws, this gaze, are first of all those of a contemporary witness: the young Europa, both our guide in these Metamorphoses and their main heroine.