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Theo and the Metamorphosis review – chaotic antithesis to the arthouse market

Director Damien Odoul builds a playground for star Theo Kermel in an experimental film that is by turns sweet, surreal and disturbing

Theo and the Metamorphosis is a film that starts out sweet, warm, and silly, and becomes increasingly more nutty, surreal, and worrisome as it goes on. It depicts the inner life of its titular protagonist (played by Theo Kermel, an actor and dancer with Down’s Syndrome), though he prefers to be called TO, living in a rural home somewhere deep in the countryside with his father (Pierre Munier). TO’s voiceover tells of his time learning martial arts, hunting, or just generally living a Boy’s Own Adventure with his father.

All of this is captured with a sun-dappled summery mood that feels liberating, though whenever it chooses to, the film readily shifts into a far darker mood. Take, for example, an opening prologue that see TO venture into a cave, replete with rumbling sound design and a rapidly nauseating sense of claustrophobia.

What starts out as a bucolic depiction of off-the-grid living takes a sudden leftward turn when the father, a photographer, has to leave for a few days for an exhibition. Suddenly something switches in TO, and he explodes in hatred. When the father returns, TO commits patricide, and thus begins the second half of the film, which takes a headlong trip inside his psyche. Not everything we find there is pleasant or innocent.

Already in the first half we’re witness to TO’s fallibility – his occasional impetuousness and arrogance, including a scene where he’s watching porn, audio at full blast, with his father in the room. In the second half, though, that devolves into flashes of genital mutilation, incest, and furious anger. But there are also moments of sweetness and bizarreness: a dog who is a reincarnated Bob Marley, or a female co-star who is also an ass-kicking ninja.

Perhaps the goal of its French director Damien Odoul was to build some kind of cinematic playground for Kermel to go wild. If that’s the case, the film works as an act of nothing-off-limits collaboration. There are gross missteps throughout. The film reduces female characters to just figments of male fantasy, existing only to sexually gratify or mother TO (though to be fair, the father may also be a complete figment of his imagination). Worldwide cultures get reduced to aesthetic quips. Some of the sheer strangeness tips into boredom once the shock value dissipates.

But that directness is also part of the charm. Theo and the Metamorphosis doesn’t mollycoddle TO or its lead actor, and the commitment to allowing him to do just about anything, good taste or decency be damned, makes for hugely refreshing viewing. There’s a sense of impish, chaotic playfulness throughout that’s a complete about-face from the restrained sterility that is the domain of most films targeted at the arthouse market these days. Even when the film misses completely, it’s easy to forgive, because so much of it is thriving with a real sense of energy. That alone makes it worth seeking out.

Theo and the Metamorphosis is released in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 24 June.

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