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CANNES — With his eclectic collection of shorts, documentaries and the 2012 medium-length movie, Orleans, French filmmaker Virgil Vernier has earned himself a reputation as a director who’s difficult to categorize.
That label can certainly apply to his latest feature, Mercuriales, an amalgam of narrative, verite, fiction and science-fiction that’s held together by a shred of a story, as well as by two alluring young actresses — Ana Neborac and Philippine Stindel — making their screen debut. At times recalling Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her with its blend of cinematic techniques and its banlieue setting, this Cannes ACID sidebar selection winds up overstaying its welcome after the 90-minute mark, but remains fascinating enough to garner Vernier further attention both at home and abroad.
Not recommended for audiences who like their movies streamlined and easily accessible, Mercuriales — named for two dilapidated steel-and-glass skyscrapers (modeled after the Twin Towers) located in the working-class Paris suburb of Bagnolet — ostensibly begins as an expose on the buildings themselves, trailing a young black security guard as he visits the facilities for his first night on the job.
But that plotline quickly disappears as the action shifts to focus on two girls — one French (Stindel), the other Moldovan (Neborac) — who work as receptionists in the lobby, striking up a friendship as they wander throughout the crumbling housing projects, deserted highways and industrial wilderness that surround the towers.
Yet even their story is only caught in glimpses and eventually lost, then found again, amid countless other digressions, as it soon becomes clear that Vernier is less interested in traditional narrative than in creating a freewheeling cinematic prose-poem, mixing seemingly improvised scenes with purely documentary ones — some accompanied by a voiceover making reference to war and destruction.
It’s a method that brings to mind Jean Rouch, Chris Marker and the more avant-garde works of Godard, — the sight of fashion model Neborac strolling among the ruins has echoes of Marina Vlady in 2 or 3 Things — painting a collage-like portrait of a land gone to waste, and whose survivors are a mix of outcasts, fanatics, strippers and other marginal figures that Vernier captures with a certain level of compassion.
But despite the wealth of material, Mercuriales feels too opaque at times to merit feature length, with some scenes running on for longer than necessary, while others purposely lead us in random directions. Meanwhile, the central plot involving Neborac and Stindel’s characters never feels strong enough to carry things to the end, even if the two actresses have a kind of quietly appealing chemistry.
Shot on 16mm film by DP Jordane Chouzenoux (Insecure), with most scenes using minimal light and natural decors, the movie has the stark, haunting look of archive footage that’s been fished out of the trash can of an unknown future. Further adding to the eerie atmosphere is a score by electronic musician James Ferraro that plays like a John Carpenter soundtrack remixed by a madman.
Production companies: Kazak Productions, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Ana Neborac, Philippine Stindel, Jad Solesme, Annabelle Lengronne, Sadio Niakate
Director: Virgil Vernier
Screenwriter: Virgil Vernier, in collaboration with Mariette Desert
Producer: Jean-Christophe Reymond
Director of photography: Jordane Chouzenoux
Artistic collaboration: Pauline Leveque
Editors: Julien Sicart, Simon Apostolou
Music: James Ferraro
Sales agent: Kazak Productions
No rating, 108 minutes
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