Blowing Hot and Cold

in 32nd Torino Film Festival

by Eithne O'Neill

A kaleidoscopic portrait of contemporary France, this feature debut combines an innovative cinematographic style and a warm feeling for people. Beginning in medias res, it plunges us into the core of the twin office towers on the east periphery of Paris after which it is named. Built in 1975 at the Porte de Bagnolet to counterbalance the Défense complex on the skyline to the west, the Mercuriales are individually referred to as Tour Levant (eastern) and, using an older term, Tour Ponant (western). While intimating that the towering edifices purportedly symbolize power and dynamism, the attention paid to nomenclature and to detail sets the tone for what is to come. Panning shots take us around the Mercuriales while glamorous young women with novelistic names are summoned off-frame. Not only does the place contrast with the alternative décor of the dilapidated suburbs, the mythological resonance of Mercuriales, perhaps unsurprisingly on the part of a director called Virgil Vernier, implies permanently shifting realities. As a voice over reminds us, with its extremes of heat and cold, the planet Mercury is volatile.

Pounding chords are heard against a pitch black screen before a young black man is briefed for a job as night watchman. Huge orange rubber pipes, reminiscent of the ventricles of a heart, convey air and water. As an enclosed domain, complete with generator and fire safety rules to deal with a temperature of 63° centigrade, the Mercuriales recall the nuclear plant in Zlotowski’s film Grand Central. But it is the surveillance theme that introduces three main features of the society portrayed here: its loneliness, its paranoia and its multi-ethnicity. The solitary night-watchman cannot access the outside. Vernier’s montage is ironic comment, as the video-camera reveals an intruder being removed from the premises. Meaning and change, not action and plot, are what count.

Things go in twos. This is a tale of youth, of the friendship between Lisa from Moldavia and Joane Baumlin of Alsatian descent. Twinship is present in their long-legged, long-haired appearance. Two long shots over panoramic views structure the episodic sequences as the girls describe Paris from the top of the Mercuriales and when they admire the sun set over the Rhine. Their backgrounds are revealed. They visit Joane’s grandfather’s house in the village of Sierentz on the German border, whereas Lisa’s story is one of loss: I had a cousin, we were like sisters. Joane has a psychiatric past. The two share lodgings with Zouzou whose wedding they celebrate as well as Joane’s birthday. At summer’s close, Lisa returns to Chisinau. Its climate she describes as too hot and too cold.

The Mercuriales’ storeys are labelled Venus, Bacchus and Apollo. A dog responds to «Ulysses». A littered office and a crumbling tower-blocks are alike chaotic. Dislocation and relocation operate between mercurial entrepreneurship and the ring- road signs for the «sensitive» suburbs of St. Denis, Drancy and Villejuif. No Eiffel Tower, no picture postcard Paris, but vibrant graffiti. No fuss either as a homeless man is evicted at gun-point from under a bridge. Mercuriales spans an August month. A voice over observes:  “This story takes place in bygone days of violence”, or again: “Across Europe, a war spread…” Ordinary lives are in fact built on the sands of upheaval and anxiety. Defining herself as a “tourist”, Lisa loses her way in the undergrowth along the suburban railway lines. Joane wants to be a dancer. An older man tries his Romanian out on Lisa. Words are paramount. An intolerant white convert to the Muslim religion gets a tongue lashing from Joane. Humour abounds. Bright as a button, Nadia quizzes him: Where do the real Muslims come from?

The salient colours are blue and red. Against a blue sky, the Mercuriales are blue. In the sticky hot weather, the girls bounce in the pool. For Nadia, the bedroom wall-paper with its cloudscape is Paradise. Lisa wears red trousers and Nadia dons red tops. For her, Adam and Eve began it all, so the world goes round in a circle and the end with God is inevitable. A masked magician reads the ladies’ horoscopes. The decaying tower blocks are demolished by a monster crane. (One day, Mercuriales will come down too). The composition is painterly. After her wedding, Zouzou, all in white, says «I’m tired», cradling her child like a Pieta. Shot in 16mm, Mercuriales is a variation on a French cinematic theme, illustrated by Jacques Rivette’s Phantom Ladies over Paris, 1974, Eric Rohmer’s Four Aventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, 1987, yet it is closer to Eric Zoncka’s I998 story of Marie and Isa, The Daydream of Angels, winner of the FIPRESCI prize at the Viennale. Joane asserts: I’m not interested in men right now. One year more, then I must become a woman. This sounds like a challenge. Does the voice over “A long time ago, there were two sisters” come from Lisa’s “lost” cousin Bojina? Or does it hail from a collective unconscious? Who is the black-cloaked female avenger smashing in the window panes? The actresses Ana Neborac, Philippine Stindel, Annabelle Lengronne, Jade Solesme are excellent. The shot of Nadia skating along is the epitome of vitality. Indeed, we are confronted with a markedly female realm of experience. Well-versed in ju-jitsu, an employee throws the new watchman over her shoulder. Subsequently, he joins a team of paratroopers wielding machine-guns. As Nadia and her playmates wiggle and twist, the boys watch, mouth agape. A woman reads the Pauline text at Zouzou’s church wedding ceremony “Love surpasseth all”. In Grandpa’s garden, Lisa tries a rifle-shot. Charged with visual and verbal phallic images, the female nucleus corresponds to a sad state of alienation and emasculation. Lisa’s attempt to converse with men in a working-class bar has met with the reaction: “I don’t talk with women; I pay to see them. I’m too exhausted by my work to have sex with you.” And are not the towers themselves of the feminine gender?

On a pet dog’s grave-stone, we read Nous n’irons plus au bois (We’ll go no more into the woods), one of the best-known French children’s songs, whose next line (Les Lauriers sont coupés) inspires the title of The Bays are Sere, the 1988 novel by Édouard Dujardin, one of the inventors of the interior monologue to whom Joyce acknowledged his debt. This is a self-reflexive shot of Vernier’s cinematic art, whereby suggestion and the subliminal are preferred to classical film narrative. The realistic mode gives way to drawings by Lisa, who sketches Joane. A midnight blue comic strip Superman looms; a kitschy pink bedroom rises from nowhere. Six ID shots follow a single news item of a woman attacked. Kentucky Fried Chicken chalets are ablaze: who is the arsonist? A traditional Moldavian Spring rite is inserted in a blend of archive material and stored memories. For Joane and Lisa, a flaming bonfire evokes a dragon. Lisa conjures up the guardian spirits of the four towers. A magnificent owl, a large near grotesque specimen with an unblinking gaze is a nocturnal apparition- to Lisa. In a melancholy tone, she reproaches the clearly familiar presence, a symbol of wisdom for some, of clairvoyance for others, with not leaving her in peace. Be that as it may, a pattern emerges in this flow of a value to uphold. Could it be, beyond the dissolution of borders, the quest for an abiding sense of self?

Edited by Tara Judah