ND/NF Interview: Virgil Vernier
With its murky images of pagan rituals, voiceover referring to a war spreading across Europe, and general sense of malaise among the young, Virgil Vernier’s Mercuriales brings worrisome tidings of life on the Continent—and beyond. Yet Vernier’s free-associating exploration of the lives of two young women in the shadow of the twin Mercuriales office towers outside Paris is also one of the most encouraging dispatches from current French cinema. By extracting rich, strange metaphor from the circumscribed territory of the French suburbs, Vernier creates an inexhaustibly layered portrait of contemporary life and elevates his film to a cosmic level.
While Mercuriales is Virgil Vernier’s first fiction feature, he is a familiar presence on the European festival circuit for his work in documentary film, notably Simulation (06) and Police Station (09), a diptych on the French police co-directed with Ilan Klipper. Yet as the conversation below makes clear, his work cannot be easily pigeonholed. From his earliest self-produced shorts, Vernier has attempted to capture the state of France today by combining documentary and fiction in a way that evokes tales and figures as ancient as civilization.
FILM COMMENT talked to the writer-director about the reality of the French suburbs, the alchemy of celluloid, and finding connections across time and space. Mercuriales screens March 22 and 26 in New Directors / New Films.
In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma five years ago, you mentioned you were writing a film that would feature two young women, one from Eastern Europe and one from Orléans, which would be like “Joan of Arc in the Paris suburbs.” How did that idea evolve into Mercuriales?
I’ve had the idea for Mercuriales for over five years. When I discovered that there was an annual Joan of Arc celebration in Orléans, I felt like making a medium-length film that would allow me both to try out some things I wanted to do with a pair of young women and certain stylistic things I wanted to test before I made a feature. So my producer and I decided to make the small film Orléans , which gave me the opportunity to create the character of Joane, who I later brought back in Mercuriales, as if Orléans was a prequel to that film. I just changed it so that in Mercuriales the character no longer comes from Orléans, because that seemed too self-referential. Now she’s from the Paris suburbs.
In Mercuriales, you create a portrait of a specific time and place through an abundance of references to other times and places. How do you structure these references to create a contemporary portrait?
What interests me in making a film is to talk about something that appears to be very small but make that thing start to resonate in increasingly large concentric circles. In concrete terms, that means that a film taking place in a Paris suburb can echo what is happening in France, Europe, the world, and that it even starts to resonate with the cosmos, the galaxies, and Mercury, and that all of this collides. The same goes for all the different eras. That’s how I understand life. I see things in the news that make me think of events in the Middle Ages or myths in the Bible or tales by the Brothers Grimm. That’s just how I think. I like to make these comparisons and points of equivalence visible through images.
How do you organize meaning in your films? For instance in Mercuriales, the twin towers at the beginning might remind the viewer of the World Trade Center. Much later in the film, a kid mentions the World Trade Center, confirming the viewer’s intuition in an unexpectedly trivial context. How do you conceive these connections?
I do everything I can to allow chance to have its way. By that, I mean that I try to make things come about. If it happens, great, the parallels will take place. If it doesn’t happen, too bad, because I don’t want to force reality to say things that it doesn’t. That night, that boy talked about the World Trade Center, but I had never written any lines for him. I just suggested that these boys talk to each other about conspiracy, fantasies of state secrets, lots of topics I personally find fascinating, with the idea in the back of my mind that there might be a vague echo of things in the film, starting with the collapse of the World Trade Center, which inaugurated the 21st century and is an event that can resonate all the way to the Paris suburbs. The entire film is constructed that way. There are mythological figures—actually I don’t like to say “mythological,” it’s become an overused word—there are figures that fascinate me, figures from the world of dreams, and I try to work to make connections with them in reality. I track those connections down. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we keep them in the edit, sometimes we don’t.
Your answer makes me want to ask how you made this film, in concrete terms. I know you wrote a script, but now I’m learning there was also improvisation.
I don’t really like the word “improvisation” because it reminds me of bad amateur theater where everyone is pretending to be someone else. What I prefer is a kind of hyper-radical form that comes from what some people call documentary, which is to limit yourself to filming reality in the rawest, most anti-fictional way, like a pure window onto the world. The films I made before were really like that, because I hated fiction, I thought it was a completely outdated artifice. But with Mercuriales, I did have the desire to bring back an imaginary aspect which would entail filming people, things, and places for what they are and to try and create intersections between all these things. But without ever forcing people to say things or lying or tampering or manipulating through editing. It’s more like points of dialectical correspondence, like one image next to another image equals this other thing, or a story told three minutes into the film will resonate with a landscape seen after an hour and a half. The girls talk about a dragon, and at the end of the film, you see a dragon destroying everything.
So what did the script look like? What was your approach to shooting and editing?
I’m torn between the desire to answer you and my desire to keep my secrets, because it’s hard to explain, it’s so trivial but at the same time… I’m incapable of answering that. Let’s just say that I chose people whom I like, who vaguely resemble the fantasy of a screenplay that I wrote, without any dialogue, just with the idea to make a film in which two girls, one from the East and one from the West, meet by the Mercuriales towers and from that to try to follow every possible thread found in scenes from contemporary life. Once I met the young women, they told me about their lives and I would ask them if they would be willing to tell such and such a story in a specific scene or to do some specific thing they knew how to do in real life in another scene. I try to follow every single possible thread of what each person and each landscape can bring to the film. I think and think and think so that all of this can merge in a natural manner and seem perfectly self-evident.
Yet some elements in Mercuriales seem to belong to the realm of heightened fiction, like the voiceover. How did you conceive the voiceover?
It came from lots of little texts and drawings and images cut out of newspapers, which I gave the girls to see how they would react to all that. Images and texts that fascinate me, things I copied out of books and others that I wrote in a second state, a waking dream state, as if I were hypnotized. As a result, the writing isn’t even thought out. It’s like when a kid draws and doesn’t even know what he’s doing. It’s like outsider art. I’m not trying to make literature or beautiful writing, but when I see that the girls hold on to some of the texts because they speak to them, I let them say those in the voiceover. I recorded it without quite knowing where it would go in the film, but I told myself it was part of the film’s matter, just like the act of cutting out articles in newspapers.
Were you surprised by the film?
It sounds silly to say so, but yes, I was really dazzled when I saw it coming together. During the shoot, I was extremely charmed by certain things that seemed really strange on the page but actually seemed so natural in shooting. Then editing is like sorcery, it’s like magic formulas, suddenly two sequences put side by side create a new meaning. So I was dazzled, as if a monster was rising before me and I couldn’t even control it anymore.
What drew you to the Mercuriales towers?
They’re totally mundane towers, like you could find in any Western city—or in fact in any city that has experienced that expansion of capitalism that led to the building of financial zones. These areas always have the same architecture, made of steel and one-way mirror windows in which the sun gets reflected. These structures seem to be the totems of a civilization that wants to magnify the power of the economy and money and to always be higher. All these totems strike me as being rich with meaning now that there’s been an economic crisis. In the past, they seemed to be urban aberrations, but now they already look like the totems of a lost civilization, which is in crisis and in danger of collapse and being destroyed by planes and people who want to make a revolution.
On a more personal note, I grew up facing those two buildings. I could always see them from my childhood bedroom. I saw them as monsters towering over the highway, with their long legs, or like male and female figures side by side, like two twins reflecting each other. All that seemed full of significance, and when I learned that one of the towers was called Tour du Levant [East Tower] and the other was called Tour du Ponant [West Tower], it gelled perfectly with my idea of a film dealing with East and West. Then I discovered that several rooms in the towers are named after Greek deities. That extravagance taps into a wealth of stories.
The film is haunted by Eastern Europe. Why did you want to make Eastern Europe present in the French suburbs? And why is the character of Lisa from Moldova?
The first thing is that I myself am of Romanian background, though I had never been to Romania until this year. In my family, I always heard these strange tales about Romania and other Eastern European countries, tales featuring vampires and set in a period in which quasi-barbaric customs still took place, a little bit like that festival I show in the film in which men pretend to sodomize each other and pour alcohol on themselves, kind of a weird Dionysian Bacchanal. And on top of all that, there was still a war going on in Eastern Europe in the Nineties—I’m trying to talk about war in the film, in the form of an imaginary but very present war. It was Europe and yet there were still wars taking place, barbaric wars like the ones in the twentieth century or the Middle Ages. The character of Lisa, from Moldova, grew up in Tirana, in Albania, which remained a dictatorship until 1996, and other countries against a backdrop of war. And because she’s obsessed with this violence everywhere, when she gets to the Paris suburbs, she recognizes a sinister history on the nightly news, reminiscent of the burning of girls on public squares, like witches. It all reminds her of what she experienced in the East. Even the suburban Paris landscapes, with those colorful facades, which are exactly what you find in Tirana or in Soviet cities.
As for Moldova, I didn’t have a particular preoccupation with it, it was simply because I met Ana Neborac [who plays Lisa] and she was from there. If she had been from Albania, she would have been from Albania in the film.
Mercuriales depicts the Paris suburbs in diverse and sometimes surprising fashions, which occasionally borrow from science fiction or evoke Eastern Europe. Did you set out to dispel preconceived notions of the suburbs?
No, I tried to… well, I tried to make a film! I mean that I tried to do something that wasn’t the TV news or one of those films made without thought, just to be sensationalistic. I tried to make a film with the Paris suburbs that I know, in which I did some of my growing up, and that are not at all like what you see on the nightly news. At the same time, I wanted to avoid being naïve and acting as if everything was just fine. I did want to deal with that whole atmosphere of insecurity that the French papers talk about, and which is repeated all over the world, and with the connection to terrorism. But those aren’t the root problems in the film. The root problem is solitude, the state of feeling lost and being bored in your life. I wanted that voice from the media to be present, but to make it an object of ridicule, because when it comes down to it, the girls hang out in the street in short shorts and they don’t get assaulted. And that’s how it really is. There’s no climate of permanent danger on the streets at night.
I was a little surprised that the two young women go to stay at a country house, which seems such a trope of French auteur film in an otherwise very unusual film. Why did you choose to have them do that?
I don’t really ask myself whether something has been seen in a film before. I’m not trying to be original, actually. The trip to the country came very naturally. At one point in the film the two girls hit a dead end—they can no longer manage to exist in that Paris suburb and they have to go elsewhere to see if things would be better there. It could be the countryside or anywhere else, like the seaside, it doesn’t matter. The essential thing was to get out of that Paris suburb to see if there was anything new out there. What I think is a little different from a film where this would be an expected thing is that actually it’s sad in that house. The utopia doesn’t happen, it doesn’t take. It’s nice to watch the sunset on the first day but quickly all the problems in the film return and make their trip a vain illusion.
Why did you shoot in 16 mm?
For lots of reasons. But I thought it’s what would allow us to avoid a current imagery I don’t much like, which is still trying to find itself. HD is still trying to find itself. It hasn’t been figured out yet. It hasn’t achieved that state of grace that I tried for. I tried to find something that would allow us to not be in any particular era. It could be an image of an imaginary future but it could just as easily be an unknown past. We needed that alchemical thing, like the poets used to say. Celluloid is chemistry, you develop it through a chemical process. There’s a revelation that takes place, something magical that resembles the film, I think.
What’s your perspective on French cinema today?
I’m not expecting many surprises from cinema. I think many people have trouble existing in cinema and doing adventurous things because they have money problems. So they’re forced to make movies to make money. So there’s no frisson. There’s nothing unsettling. I’m always looking for something where suddenly someone is showing me something I’ve never seen.
Do you know the incredible feeling of suddenly having an idea, something that seems completely self-evident, a very beautiful idea, which you tell yourself you can make into a movie? I’m chasing after that unique feeling, I’m constantly trying to make myself available for that moment of inspiration to happen. That’s what shooting is. And I like to see something very inspired like that in other artists, something I’ve never seen before, which makes me dizzy and gives me a new perspective on the world today, something I totally don’t understand but it seems to abound with very new, potential meaning. I love what is very new.
Translated by Nicholas Elliott