Two young women explore lesser-known parts of France in search of themselves in this flawed French film.
Mercuriales (ND/NF Review)
As part of their New Directors/New Films 2015 Exhibit, the MoMA is screening Mercuriales. This latest feature from French filmmaker Virgil Vernier premiered at Cannes in 2014 and has been making the rounds on the European festival circuit since. The MoMA screening will mark the film’s US debut.
Set in a run-down area in France, the film stars newcomers Ana Neborac and Philippine Stindel as Lisa and Joane, respectively, a pair of employees at a French company who meet and become close friends. Over a summer, they drift along and share a variety of experiences ranging from lazy poolside days to a visit to a massive sex club. Throughout, the Moldovan immigrant Lisa remains less accessible than the fiery aspiring dancer Joane, which puts a strain on their relationship.
And that’s about as structured a summary as I can offer because Mercuriales is about as unstructured a film as one can get.
It opens rather ominously, with a new security guard being given a tour of the bowels of a pair of twin skyscrapers. (The buildings look hauntingly like the World Trade Center, only shorter.) He is presented with a great deal of technical information—things like how long the backup generators will keep the buildings powered and why the width of the stairwells make them the best exit and the safest place to be in the event of catastrophe. (He’s told, “It’s safe here for four hours. Nothing is inflammable.”) It is an opening ripe with foreshadowing that seems more suited to an American disaster film than a French drama.
The tenor drastically changes with the introduction of the leads—two young and pretty women whose relationship suggests something more than platonic but not quite romantic. Their exploits and experiences—either on their own or with each other—are so random, and are cut to and from so quickly, that the introduction of each new moment in their lives is routinely jarring.
This is where Mercuriales creates its own problems and sustains them until the end of the film. It’s more than an absence of narrative; it’s an absence of any kind of flow whatsoever. One minute the women are at the sex club, the next, Lisa is vandalizing property in an effort to purge her anger over the plight of her homeland.
Other characters contribute to this issue as well. Early in the film, Vernier introduces Lisa’s roommate, Zouzou (Annabelle Lengronne), and Zouzou’s adorable 9-year-old daughter, Nadia (Jad Solesme). Eventually, those two each get their own individual screen time; Zouzou gets her hair done for her wedding and gabs with her hair dresser, and Nadia hangs out after school with classmates. Even the security guard returns for a scene somewhere between Lisa’s vandalism and Joane’s birthday dinner. Without narrative or flow, these throw-ins are boggling.
Mercuriales is less of a film and more of a slide show of random moments, but with recurring characters that change with no set tempo. It’s all so very frustrating because the great moments are dampened by the instant appearance of whatever random moment comes next.
The film isn’t without strengths, though. Shot by cinematographer Jordane Chouzenoux in 16mm, the film is a great visual experience. It takes a bit of getting used to, but there is a certain richness to the imagery that is striking. Also striking is James Ferraro’s electronic score. Ferraro, making his debut as a film composer, creates music sounding like a distorted, cranked up version of a John Carpenter soundtrack. Several scenes—particularly that open with the security tour of the building—invoke memories of early ’80s VHS classics thanks to the powerful score.
A top-notch audio/visual experience isn’t enough to rescue the film from itself or its director, though. “Arthouse” is a genre of film that has the distorted reputation of being something the average moviegoer can’t connect with, so the average moviegoer might not even try to connect with it. Unfortunately, Mercuriales perpetuates that reputation, but only because of its quality, not because of its genre.