In Valery Fokin’s “Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka’s short story becomes an eerily atmospheric if languidly paced film. Pic’s ace is young actor Evgeny Mironov, who transforms himself into a giant insect without special effects or cockroach costume. That said, film follows Kafka too respectfully and ends up relying too much on mood at expense of story. Result is a beautifully lensed film that feels static and old-fashioned in spite of its modernist elements. It has been touring the festivals extensively, where it should find some artfilm buyers.
Fokin, a well-known Russian theater director who adapted the same story for the stage in a famous 1995 production starring Konstantin Raikin, boldly seizes on surrealist visuals to communicate the spirit of Kafka’s work. There is much to admire in the staging, which nimbly sidesteps theatricality to do things only a camera can.
Opening shots find Gregor Samsa (Mironov) descending from a train in Prague in the pouring rain, a wooden mannequin of a man. Coming to life, he makes his way home to a warm bourgeois interior (the time is circa 1915) where he lives with his father, mother, sister and a housemaid. Their cheerful, ritualistic dinner is to be Gregor’s last consumed with knife and fork: he awakens from a restless sleep to find himself transformed into some kind of monstrous insect.
As Gregor lies on his back in bed, his sensitive, silly face tries to puzzle out why his four limbs are moving in a strangely symmetrical way. At once comic and pathetic, he tries to answer his mother’s call, but only squeaks come out of his deformed mouth. The unexpected arrival of his boss, a vampirish Chief Clerk in bowler hat, alerts the household that something is wrong. When Gregor finally gets the door open, turning the locked key in his insect mouth, all hell breaks loose in slow motion.
Mironov excels not only in physical mimicry, but in portraying Gregor’s pathetic dignity as he humbly accepts the fact that his formerly loving family now completely rejects him. Locked in his room with all the curtains drawn, fed scraps of garbage by his sister, he climbs the walls and ceiling, leaving slime marks everywhere. Here the story grinds to a halt, as there is nothing left for Gregor to do but dream of happy childhood memories. Without his income, the family is forced to rent a room to three demanding lodgers, whom Fokin rather dodgily turns into orthodox rabbis. When Gregor scares them away, even his sister screams he must be got rid of, and he lets himself die in the filth of his room.
Despite its longueurs, film boasts some spectacular technical work. Cinematographer Igor Klebanov’s lighting, diffused through mist into ivories and gray-greens, is breathtaking in the dream sequences. The image of blank-faced businessmen in identical bowler hats recalls a Magritte painting and works as a nightmare image of the dehumanization facing Gregor as a prototypical modern man. Complementing Alexander Bakshy’s eerie, atonal score is an abstract mix of sounds recorded by Victor Strokov and Valentin Bobrovsky, which add a haunting atmosphere.