In a delightful bit of programming happenstance, you’ll find two rather unusual contemporary French films screening in Chicago this week. After premiering at the Chicago International Film Festival last year, Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I covered the film then and maintain my shaky appreciation for Guiraudie’s craft even if I still can’t fully commit to the picture’s surreal shapelessness. However, I found more to admire in Christophe Honoré’s similar-minded Metamorphoses (Noteworthy), which screens exclusively at Facets Cinematheque.
Perhaps it was a freedom of expectations that prompted my appreciation for Honoré’s work. Having never read Ovid’s epic poem that the film is based on or even encountered any of Honoré’s previous films, I was confronted with a thrilling blank slate. Confusion settles in fairly quickly, as Honoré will liberally realize Ovid’s transmutation mythologies at such a rapid clip and without the usual trappings of conventional narrative storytelling. A character will transform from man to stag with only subtle and precise editing devices suggesting the shift. Similarly, a character will shape-shift from a cruising semi-truck into a strapping young man who just so happens to be the Roman God, Jupiter.
The kaleidoscopic qualities of the film’s narrative may initially seem overwhelming, where Honoré will transition from one myth to the next with such flagrant disinterest in explaining the whys and whences of what’s going on. But a framework makes itself apparent as the picture proceeds. There’s something inexplicably rewarding about figuring and piecing Metamorphoses together, where the picture’s psychosexual preoccupations bare such remarkable application to our contemporary concerns regarding heteronormative behavior and gender fluidity. Compounded by Honoré’s distinctive ephemeral qualities (a sequence that sees a teenage Narcissus playing, of all things, basketball, is loaded with stunning glimpses of youthfulness and hedonism), that even if the film provokes doubt and uncertainty, it nevertheless possesses a formal sophistication that at the very least makes the whole effort a viscerally pleasurable one. It’s this quality that distinguishes Honoré ‘from Guiraudie: while Honoré’s surrealist qualities will inspire his audience, Guiraudie’s prankster wisdom can so often repel. Nevertheless, Francophiles of Chicago certainly have a pair of challenging and rewarding films to consider this week.