Mysterious and soulful, Virgil Vernier’s debut fiction feature has its eyes on the night skies and its feet firmly planted on concrete. Somewhere in a Paris banlieue backcountry of brutalist housing projects, two young women, Lisa and Joane, strike up a friendship and wonder about their futures; we also get periodic glimpses of a young guy first seen learning the ropes in a building’s control room. Vernier maps out the women’s psychological landscape with close attention to the shared space of hanging out and the momentary pressure points when their ideas about the world bump up against reality.
Mercuriales materialized at l’ACID during last year’s Cannes festival, where Vernier’s short Thermidor showed in the Directors’ Fortnight in 2009. The filmmaker has unconventional documentary work under his belt, notably the hybrid Orléans (12), about two strippers. Here, similarly, there’s no narrative per se: Lisa (Ana Neborac) is a Moldovan immigrant trying to get her footing with increasing frustration; Joane (Philippine Stindel) wants to be a dancer. But Vernier’s quietly electrifying film is harder to classify—something like a loose-limbed photo essay, shot in rich hues on 16mm by Jordane Chouzenoux, with a touch of Celine and Julie Go Boating. Located in La Défense, the main business center in the North-East extremity of Paris, the Mercuriales of the title are totemic buildings that are the bewildering doppelgängers of New York’s Twin Towers.
The film’s full of hard-to-assimilate details like that, not to mention a raucous analog electronic score by James Ferraro that’s like Tangerine Dream led by John Bonham. All create a sense of primal emotions, seething under drab contemporary surfaces, that have yet to find expression.
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