Berlinale 2021 review: Theo and the Metamorphosis (Damien Odoul)

Damien Odoul’s Theo and the Metamorphosis follows a young man with Down syndrome who lives with his father in a secluded house in the middle of a forest. Théo (Théo Kermel), or TO as he refers to himself throughout the film, has many unique interests and obsessions, ranging from his committed efforts to learn martial arts and live as a samurai to his impressive drawing skills or love for nature. Almost the entire film is accompanied by Théo’s first-person narration in voice over and he is present in practically every scene from start to finish. By prioritizing Théo’s own perspective to such an extent, Odoul offers a rare glimpse into the world of an individual living with Down syndrome and invites us to see the forest through his eyes. Thanks to this choice, the forest turns into a dreamlike labyrinth full of wonders, a surreal world that constantly fascinates Théo and the audience alike. It is almost impossible to predict which direction this unusual film will take at any point; the only thing we can safely predict is that Théo’s journey will get increasingly strange as it goes along.

The first episode, which follows an intense prologue set in a cave, takes up roughly the first half of the film and explores Théo’s relationship with his father. While these two men clearly care for and depend on each other, Odoul avoids sentimentality in his depiction of the bond between the father and his son, opting for a slightly absurd and humorous approach instead. This is not a straightforward comedy by any means, yet Odoul finds a playful and often joyous way of visualizing Théo’s world. The characters are fully at ease in the midst of nature, they seem to enjoy a sense of boundless freedom in their rather desolate surroundings, their imagination and creativity have no limits. The simple hand-drawn animations that initiate each new episode and the rhythmic music Odoul uses intermittently also add to the unexpected dynamism of the first half.

After Théo’s father goes to the city for a photography exhibition, however, the film starts to descend into tiresome surrealism and incoherence. With several shorter episodes about bizarre characters like a snake woman, an Asian man named Tao that Théo (TO) considers to be his ‘double’, or a ninja that appears out of nowhere, it becomes more and more difficult to make sense of Théo’s world. Instead of the meaningful transformation or self-discovery one might anticipate given the title and the initial set-up, Theo and the Metamorphosis provides a disappointingly disjointed series of illusions in its second half. The ‘metamorphosis’ does not result in a more mature or self-sufficient form in Théo’s case, it only leads to a frustrating state of disorder and confusion. There is actually much to be said about Théo’s growing independence, admirable sense of discipline, desires and sexuality, or artistic talents; but the film isn’t interested in articulating anything substantial about Théo or how the absence of his father changes him.

Following its premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlinale, Theo and the Metamorphosis may attract further attention on the festival circuit thanks to the creative energy Odoul brings to this portrait of an individual with Down syndrome. There is clearly some value in the way the film focuses on Théo’s inner world and takes certain risks by avoiding a standard coming-of-age template. Sadly, however, the risks don’t quite pay off in the end since Theo and the Metamorphosis turns out to be an exhausting and baffling ride without much depth. Perhaps a tad more restraint would have been useful to keep this not-uninteresting, yet perplexing film afloat.