Florence and the Machine’s The Odyssey as the Ultimate Modern Myth
Watching Florence + The Machine’s The Odyssey (2015) for the very first time, felt like a punch in the stomach in the best possible way. The collaborative film between front woman Florence Welch, and director, Vincent Haycock, is said to be inspired by a “car crash of a relationship break up”. While many other artists, like Beyoncé and Drake, have recently dipped their toe into the world of longer films as accompaniments to their music, no film feels quite so personal, or confrontational such as The Odyssey.
The title of the film, immediately invokes ties to Homer’s epic of the same name, and throughout the film, ties between the subject matter of the film, and the epic poem become more clear. The Odyssey offers the viewer so much not only in the cinematic quality of every shot, but in the themes explored within. It is a richly weaved tapestry which carries imagery and symbolism from Greek Myth, Biblical Myth, classical literature, South American imagery, modern psychology and ancient heartache and longing.
Florence Welch and Vincent Haycock, however, have succeeded to combine all these elements together so seamlessly to create a new modern myth. One that deserves to be recognized and studied for its own merit. Using the structure and themes from the Homeric epic, The Odyssey, as well as hints to other literary classics such as Dante’s Inferno, they have created something surprisingly refreshing and relatable in which Florence Welch is Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus, all at once.
There are many curious links between the Homeric epic, and The Odyssey film, which are made even curious by the ways in which they differ. While The Odyssey poem is an outward epic with many character and plot arcs, The Odyssey film is a more reflective piece, where the journey undertaken, happens mostly inwardly. In the film, Welch’s character somehow morphs into both Odysseus traveling back to his home and family, and Penelope longing for her husband. It becomes something that tells both of longing and reconciliation.
The Odyssey poem starts ten years after the Trojan war. Odysseus has still not returned home to the island of Ithaca. His wife, Penelope and son, Telemachus are still residing on this island, but growing weary of the constant streams of suitors for Penelope’s hand. The poem then tells the story of Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca, how the various gods conspire with and against him and the various temptations and obstacles that stand in his way. After surviving Circe, shipwrecks, and being Calypso’s reluctant lover to name a few tragedies, Odysseus eventually reaches Ithaca again, to be reunited with his wife (not without some complicated twist and many murders first, this is, after all, Greek Mythology).
While Welch compared the particular relationship break up to a car crash (and is visually demonstrated in the film), in this context it makes sense that her relationship would be the metaphorical Trojan War. Just like in the poem, we meet our protagonist after the great catastrophe, when she needs to find her way back home.
The opening scenes all feel like very personal close ups of Welch’s inner most life with her lover. And the discontent builds throughout these scenes. Looks between lovers, the body language, the presence of a physical storm, as well as the storm that Florence talks about while getting into the back of the car, the storm right before the physical car crash happens. The storm is a running theme throughout both the Homeric poem and this film. In the poem, storms continuously thwarted Odysseus’s attempts to get home, by causing shipwrecks, in the same way, Welch’s character is thwarted by her stormy love affair, in her attempts to reach an inner place of peace and self-acceptance.
What Kind of Man
The first chapter of the film is a confrontational one that depicts Welch’s character struggles with various lovers. By using superb choreography, one gets the sense that either this can be a depiction of previous struggles and wounds from old lovers that tore her last relationship apart, or that she is seeing new lovers, in order to distance herself even further from the relationship.
When compared, to the Odyssey poem, I feel this to be relatable to the start of book one, where we learn of Penelope and Tremalchus’s struggles with the suitors on Ithaca. Where dozens of men have gathered in hopes of winning Penelope’s hand. To no avail, as Penelope does not want a new husband, and Tremalchus only wants to get rid of all suitors. The first chapter also starts including several images and symbolism that will develop later throughout the film, especially that of hands and mouths.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
The title of Florence and The Machine’s 2015 album is significantly stripped down for the film. Here she only sings it with no instrumental accompaniment, which surprisingly only makes the song so much stronger. The second chapter starts with Welch’s character crawling out of the crashed car, and walking away. She comes towards a bridge and as she sings, we are shown other scenes. Scenes of her being carried and dunked down in water, in the gesture of a baptism.
The water and baptism imagery immediately invokes traditional Christian symbolism, considering that much of the film was shot in Mexico, we can specify it to Roman Catholic symbolism. The grown baptism here is significant, because the grown woman, Welch’s character chooses faith out of her own volition, and not because her parents chooses it for her. What faith this precisely is, is open to interpretation. The significance of the water here is also significant. Florence Welch has always had a love for water imagery, as can be seen in her previous albums.
Water here is a means of purifying, of starting anew. It is a rebirth for her, a cleansing of her previous mistakes and pains. While still in keeping with themes from the Odyssey poem, water is important, as it is something that has divided Penelope and Odysseus, but also part of the journey home. It is at once treacherous, yet promising. This sense of duality will also be developed later in the film.
The third chapter of the film departs radically from the rest of film, firstly in terms of setting. The environment shifts from Los Angeles to Mexico. Secondly that from here on we can see our protagonist growing more isolated and turning reflective on her journey.
This chapter starts focusing on the theme of the journey, like the start of Odysseus’s own physical journey. The entire chapter is very dynamically shot with a feeling of a constantly moving camera in a single take. Throughout the take we see not only Welch’s character traveling in a strange place, but we see others, carrying rocks. She acknowledges the plights and burdens of others. Significantly enough, she herself is carried through much of this scene. In this chapter, we see some more of theme of duality being developed, something that will come into full force in the following chapter.
Ship to Wreck
Another significant shift in environment, this time from Mexico to London, this chapter deals with Welch’s character’s own self-destruction and the destruction this inflicts on those she loves around her.
Starting off with quick and dynamic camera movements, this chapters sets of to depict the violence, or the “storm within themselves” that Welch’s character struggles with. Here we see her struggle with her own duality, and how she cannot seem to reconcile the two sides of herself. In this domestic scene, she is both domestic goddess, lover and nurturer, as well as destructor, temptress, and fighter. We see the havoc this wreaks on her personal life, but also on herself, as this short chapter ends with these two sides of herself fighting each other on the stairs.
Queen of Peace
This duality recognized, we turn to the next chapter. One which not only implicates two lovers, but their families, relations, and what this means for them. This offers another dramatic shift in location as it was shot in Scotland.
True to the lyrical themes of the song, in this chapter, Welch’s character tries her utmost to keep the peace between family members, while trying to salvage her relationship. While this shift in place and another relationship may seem confusing, it stays in keeping with the Homeric epic. Odysseus had several misadventures on islands on his journey home. This chapter could be in reference to his time trapped on Circe’s island, where half his crew were turned into swine.
Once again we encounter a form of duality. This time the duality in adult and child form. In Welch’s character and a young girl bearing resemblance to her. This seems to pit both childish naivety and innocence against adult wisdom and desire.
Long and Lost
The battle lost and Florence Welch having escaped, the next chapter finds her getting on an actual boat, with, what we presume to be, her family members.
She struggles against her choice, while recognizing the need to find that elusive “home”. The family members in this and the previous chapter could both function as her “crew” like that of Odysseus, while simultaneously seeming to function like those capricious gods and outside forces that conspired to try and keep Odysseus from reaching home. Here again, we see duality at play.
From the boat, we are back in Los Angeles, Florence Welch is back on a bridge, singing Mother. Like How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, there is no instrumental accompaniment. We are also shown shots of her talking to a man in, what appears to be motel of sorts, admitting that she doesn’t know what she wants. This scene is all about being in two minds, not knowing how to progress forward with your journey.
This chapter ends with a powerful statement:
This statement seems to stand central to our protagonist’s journey and launches her into her final battle: the battle with herself.
This powerful chapter was shot entirely in a motel, and is the final battle and reconciliation of the duality within our protagonist that we’ve seen developing throughout the film.
While there are definitely other antagonists on Welch’s path, her biggest obstacle has always been herself. The powerful choreography and praying attitudes reminds one of an exorcism. Ridding yourself of the demons within. This battle with herself, turns out to be a powerful realization about the self. The things we believe we are, versus the things we truly are. That which we’d like to be perceived as, versus what we truly are. It’s a trial and error process of self-discovery and more self-discovery. This chapter ends with water. Yet, the implications aren’t as clear as with her baptism. We see a body floating in the swimming pool which resembles that of our protagonist. Has she finally reconciled her duality, by killing off one of her sides?
With her new-found self-knowledge and journey almost coming to a close, she launches into the city. She is strengthened by her experiences and is alive and vibrant with a new-found purpose.
She walks into a building, gets into an elevator, and sinks down below. This reminds one of the inferno, or going into an underworld. As she steps out of the elevator, we see several shirtless bodies, that strengthen this image, by reminding one of the lost souls of the underworld.
She victoriously overcomes all these, and she steps onto the stage, singing “I am the same, I am the same, I’m trying to change”, you know that she has won. She has reached her Ithaca, a secret place of inner peace and purpose.
By blending ancient literature and imagery with modern themes, Florence Welch has created the ultimate modern myth. One that feels incredibly universal and tells a story that is so powerfully human that’s impossible not to be moved by it. It tells of each individual’s journey, pain, struggles and merely trying to be and not get shipwrecked in this life. This is a story beautifully and delicately woven, which I believe, will provide several different things to be studied and appreciated over and over again in the years to come.