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Pascale Ferran's Metamorphic Reversal: "Bird People" and Ovid's "Metamorphoses"

What it means to become a bird.

Some eight fifteenths of the way through Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the epic poem relates the tale of an unnamed boy who was turned into a partridge. Flung from Minerva’s high temple by his jealous uncle Daedalus, the nascent inventor free falls into his new form as the Goddess intervenes, spinning his arms into wings. In observance of his near-death experience, Perdix the partridge, as he is identified in a recent translation, “declines the lofty trees, and thinks it best/To brood in hedge-rows o’er its humble nest.” (Pear trees, you’ll note, are conveniently low to the ground.)

Folded into twenty-eight lines of dactylic hexameter, Perdix’s snapshot of a story speaks to primordial self-absorption and condemnation as much as it does the whimsy of divine intervention. One could easily argue that 2006 years later, these two stanzas have been cracked open and scrambled into Pascale Ferran’s Bird People, the most bizarre and knowing examination of metamorphosis and humanity in recent memory. The immediate correlation is Perdix’s transformative fall from grace, which Ferran, for her purposes, adapts into a life affirming, empowering respite.

Her heroine, Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier), is a maid at a Hilton hotel, flanked by the runways of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle for an added, taunting dose of escapism. Her occupation naturally lends itself to the setting’s irrepressible sense of voyeurism, but it also traffics in the ins and outs of obligation. Twice in the film, Audrey is asked to work additional hours during a shift. The first time, she fibs, citing study hours for a non-existent exam, but the second time, she relents. Assuming someone else’s problem and shouldering the moral high ground, Audrey disregards her evening plans, earning her superior’s thanks: “You’re saving my life.” Is she? And at what expense? No sooner encumbered by more mess to clean, Audrey is spared by a mysterious power outage. Up on the hotel’s roof, searching for answers, she tiptoes toward the edge and then—poof—the camera lurches to a ledge below, where Audrey appears in avian form, freed of her very human responsibilities.

Ferran’s bold stroke of whimsy at first appears to turn the mythological origins of metamorphosis on its head. For starters, Perdix is condemned to a life amongst the shrubs for exhibiting extraordinary qualities, specifically in his precocious invention of the saw. He is thus stripped of his superhuman ability in his subhuman transformation, whereby he becomes another breed entirely. A breed that can barely take part in flight, the hallmark of its own kind. In Book 14 of Metamorphoses, as in Book 10 of The Odyssey, we learn of Circe turning Ulysses’ men into pigs, realizing an outward manifestation of their uncouth behavior. In Book 8, Pasiphaë gives birth to the Minotaur as recompense for her adulterous behavior.  

To become an animal is to slip more than a literal notch on the mammalian totem pole. It is a punishment, a condemnation reserved for those who dare to go beyond the bounds of so-called appropriate human conduct. Such context makes Audrey’s metamorphosis all the more peculiar, as it conversely begins as a leap toward the superhuman. Once invisible, lurking about hotel rooms while guests were away, Audrey the Sparrow becomes the omniscient voyeur, one-upping the audience as she glides from window to window along the hotel’s exterior. When she tires of this game, she heads to the nearby runway and takes flight above the airport that once taunted her with its pathological escapism. The camera, floating from her perspective, looks to be inside an actual cockpit. She’s not a human, not a bird, but a machine.

Of course, the novelty wears off. Hunger pains grumbling in her stomach now the size of a pea, Audrey yearns to revert to her human form. Pecking at leftover room service, she is attacked by a cat and swoops into a nearby room with a locked window and no way out. Her condition as the sparrow now perfectly mimics her quotidian confines; regardless of appearance, she is still beholden to the hotel’s external forces. Here, Ferran temporarily puts forth another unique concept, leveling the limitations held against humans and animals. Metamorphosis becomes an alternate interpretation of our condition, rather than degradation.

This transitory notion is complicated by the sparrow’s next stop, once she is freed from the room. Trailing a fellow hotel worker, she arrives at a park, where they both nest for the night: she, in her tree, he, in his car. What is abject for man—homelessness—is commonplace for a bird. Audrey the Sparrow would then seem to have a leg up on her prior species, even if they are in the same place at the same time for the same reason. The scales are tipped again, and her metamorphosis accrues its unexpected power.

In the macro sense, Audrey’s transformation serves as a fantastical counterpart to the internal change assumed by Ferran’s hero, Gary Newman (Josh Charles). In part one of Bird People’s bifurcated structure, we are introduced to the good-looking, white collar American Gary, who is in town at the Hilton for meetings, before he zips off to Dubai. He never makes the connection, however, instead electing to abandon his job, his wife and his family to stay in Paris, because he can no longer live like “this.”

In his 1851 essay “On the Vanity of Existence,” Arthur Schopenhauer wrote the following of the human condition:

"Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself...If this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward off boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey. Thus the first task is to gain something and the second to become unconscious of what has been gained, which is otherwise a burden."

What Gary Newman has gained, along with his jet setting job, 2.5 children and the proverbial white picket fence in San Jose, is the banality of responsibility. By selfishly and impulsively rejecting all his possessions, he hopes to become a free bird—not unlike, say, Audrey.

Ferran is not all that concerned with the ultimate outcome of his decision, shifting her focus to Audrey once Gary delivers the blow to his teary wife via Skype, and perhaps this is because we can already guess what happens. Just as Audrey awakes on the hotel roof as a lowly maid the next morning, Gary too will have to come back to earth, and acknowledge the repercussions of his actions. That’s the one nice thing about being an animal, at least if you’re in Descartes’ camp: you don’t have a conscience.  

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