“Idol” is a live-action puppet short film based on a 2000 year-old poem by the Roman author Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid for short). It describes how Pygmalion, a man disgusted with the women around him, constructs a female companion for himself from pieces of ivory; the effigy is so lifelike that he ends up falling in love with it. I have always been fascinated by the story despite (or perhaps because of) its somewhat weird and disturbing premise. Today, in a world of artificial intelligence, social media identities and virtual communication, it seems more relevant than ever. As a bachelor by choice who prefers a homemade fake woman over a real one, Pygmalion could easily pass for a hikikomori, a modern-day person suffering from acute social withdrawal. That’s why “Idol” strips him of his toga and sandals and places him in a modern urban environment. At the same time, no effort is made to hide the fact that this world is an illusion: a miniature movie set made from recycled boxes and populated with cardboard actors manipulated by an off-screen puppeteer. As a whole, the film continually toys with the tension between what is real and what is not, questioning not only its own reality status but that of our entire world. Plus, exposing itself deliberately as film and puppet show also helps it retain, I believe, some of the archetypal qualities of the original story.
The film stays true to Ovid’s poem even if it uses no narration or significant dialogue to do so. Instead it translates the text’s rich imagery into a contemporary visual form reminiscent of picture books or graphic novels, with articulated but two-dimensional puppets as actors. Traditionally, Ovid’s poem is considered a tribute to the power of art, with Pygmalion as the quintessential artist. Telling his story with puppets gives it a metaphysical angle, for now the sculptor playing with his doll is a puppet himself, not much different from the thing he has created. In the story, love goddess Venus generously brings the idol to life — a miracle that takes on a new dimension in a film where the actors themselves are fake people who only appear to be alive.
Adapting an ancient tale to modern sensibilities can have its challenges, particularly one that has such strong undertones of misogyny and patriarchal privilege as this one. In the original, after bringing Pygmalion’s effigy to life for him, Venus “is present at the wedding she herself has orchestrated,” and barely nine months later a baby is born. All of this happens without the consent of the newly created woman, who is never even given a name. The implications are deeply disturbing. Why would a love goddess reward a misogynist by turning his love doll into a wife? And why would she force this “wife” into marriage and motherhood as soon as she opens her eyes for the very first time?
It took some close reading of Ovid’s text to come up with creative answers to the issues it raises, as well as research into the ancient worship of Venus/Aphrodite on the island of Cyprus, where the story takes place. Without contradicting Ovid’s version, “Idol” nevertheless adds a twist to the story that provides a more acceptable, thought-provoking alternative to the undeserved, highly implausible happily-ever-after that the original ending suggests.
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