For a film so predicated on disorientation, there’s something admirably brazen about how Mercuriales begins with a guided tour. But this tour has little to do with getting your bearings: As a security guard leads his new colleague through the pipe-filled bowels of a twin skyscraper complex, we learn that a generator can supply the towers with electricity for 36 hours should power fail, that sprinklers are activated once the temperature rises above 68 degrees Celsius, and that the emergency stairways are designed to allow two people to flee simultaneously. An apparently mundane presentation is thus more than capable of evoking images of future crisis; according to the strange logic of Mercuriales, there’s nothing that can’t be spun into new mythologies.
Once the action moves outside, it becomes clear that these twin towers are Les Mercuriales, a pair of retro-futuristic skyscrapers that structure the skyline of eastern Paris and this otherwise free-floating film in equal measure. As the camera roams these urban environs, it also briefly alights on the two girls who will eventually emerge as protagonists: Lisa (Ana Neborac), a Moldovan immigrant working at the towers’ reception, and her feisty French colleague, Joane (Philippine Stindel), both of whom so slender and lovely you can’t help wondering whether the film would even exist if they were plain. Although the film is nominally dedicated to their burgeoning summer friendship, this wispy narrative never feels as important as the constant digressions that swirl around it, with each random location or character moving to the foreground at will.
A visit to a friend thus ends in her child proclaiming the end of the world from the comfort of her bathtub, a stroll through a stretch of overgrown wasteland leads first to a pet cemetery and then into an incantation to the towers themselves, and a trip to the swimming pool culminates in an oneiric vision of a masked magician producing fire from his wallet. The blurred boundaries between the mythical and the everyday are further accentuated by the pointed lack of establishing shots, a editing style unconcerned with temporal or spatial coherence, and, somewhat predictably, the use of 16mm stock, which bathes all and sundry in the same warm glow. At its best, Mercuriales feels like a mosaic of all the different sensorial impressions conjured up by this particular place at this particular time, a languorous, bewildering, playful summer tale that sees no difference between reality, fairy tale, and dream.
Yet the film’s willingness to veer off in any given direction at any given time unfortunately confounds as much as it exhilarates. As Lisa and Joane’s misadventures fail to build to anything substantial and the token cuts back to the towers feel less and less motivated, there’s a growing sense that the governing principle here is to avoid stemming the flow of pretty images and clever flights of fancy at all costs. This wouldn’t be a problem if all these images and ideas were made equal, but as the film progresses, for every bewitching idea, there’s a clunky one to match. The worse offenders here are the occasional ill-advised forays into the political, such as when a drunken Joane gets into an improbable discussion about sexual freedoms with a white French Muslim or when Lisa’s night of typically well-framed vandalism segues into a montage of blood-drenched photos. If you’re wanting to address such thorny issues as these, tossing them into a stream of images at seeming random is probably not the best way of doing so.
By the time the film has started explicitly referencing its own dreamlike, fairy-tale atmosphere, the air has well and truly gone out of this meticulously prepared soufflé, something which a strangely conventional third-act trip to the country is unable to remedy. As Joane traces out all the many cities that lie between Paris and Chisinau, she’s unwittingly touching upon exactly what’s missing in Mercuriales. If you’re going to be traversing such constantly shifting territory, you might want to think about taking a map.