Writer-director Jessica Hausner’s sly, suggestive Lourdes plays at times like a vignette from Luis Buñuel’s picaresque pilgrims-on-the-road movie The Milky Way blown up to feature length, especially in its studied ambiguity, amounting to a steadfast refusal to verify or deny its apparently miraculous content, and persistent undermining of staid piousness with humor. The opening high-angle shot of a dining room being prepped and then slowly occupied by a procession of the ill and infirm, as the camera infinitesimally closes in on a wheelchair-bound young woman, Christine (Sylvie Testud), sets the stage for one of Hausner’s abiding interests: the tensions that emerge between a group and its individual members, a “package cure” that systematically conflates tourists and pilgrims. Contributing to the oppressive sense of invariable procedure and unyielding hierarchy, the assembly of the afflicted are chaperoned by representatives from the Order of Malta, dark-uniformed “knights” (young men) and “helpers” (women) clad in bright red. Furthering the merchandise/miracle equation, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Virgin Mary statuettes are on display, available for purchase at the hostel’s gift shop and the storefront “Catholic Associations” that line the streets of Lourdes.
Hausner employs a suitably detached style with an emphasis on static compositions, often capturing balanced, painterly tableaux, or else inching through the crowds and queues (when the camera does move) in slow zooms and lateral pans. It’s a strategy that lends itself handily to the film’s documentary-like aspects, its concern for spatial orientation within the vast Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, as well as details of procedure, such as submitting to the Lourdes water baths, a clinical undertaking that amounts to pouring blessed water from a spigot into a small bucket, then dumping it over the pilgrim’s head and limbs and allowing them in gratitude to kiss a Virgin Mary statuette.
Moreover, this aesthetic of arm’s-length remove, deliberate pacing, and minimal dialogue allows Hausner to parcel out tidbits of information concerning relations between group members. Turns out not everyone is there for a cure. One elderly gentleman’s disease is loneliness. Group solidarity, or so he says, improves his disposition—though, by film’s end, it’s unclear whether he stands to gain any lasting comfort from his sojourn. Mrs. Hartl and Mrs. Huber, a two-woman Greek chorus, argue over the exact details of an alleged cure. An older woman who hovers solicitously around Christine may or may not be her mother. Elsewhere, the priest attached to the group and a high-ranking knight play cards and crack jokes about the Virgin; even so, the man is not immune from philosophical speculation, opining, when Christine passes out, “The tide buries us all in the end.” One of Lourdes’s strong suits, in fact, lies in the deft nuance and complexity with which Hausner delineates the group dynamic: Skepticism and credence balance out, so that ultimately the meaning of the story derives as much from what the viewer brings to it, one of the benchmarks of the “open artwork.”
Much of the conversation, naturally, revolves around the method, meaning, and duration of the unnatural cures, as in the testimonial video the group is encouraged to watch, a scene that bears, doubtless unintentionally, hilarious resemblance to the Mertin Flemmer promo in Being John Malkovich. Christine’s mother at one point inquires from the priest about proper procedure, as though she could follow it step by step like a cake recipe. The priest responds, as he often does, by toeing the official doctrinal line about healing the soul before you can cure the body. The helpers’ matron, Cecile (Elina Löwensohn), advises Christine, quoting chapter and verse from Corinthians, to rejoice in her suffering, which is more than a little ironic, given the third-act revelation when Cecile succumbs to some unnamed disease.
Christine’s assigned helper, Maria (Léa Seydoux), flirts and cavorts with the young knights assigned to the group, going so far as to barge in on Christine in the middle of the night. Christine harbors feelings for Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), one of the young men. From the start, Kuno appears polite and solicitous but standoffish, more interested in the hale-bodied Maria. When Christine subsequently confesses to the priest, she vents in a roundabout way her envy for Maria and her sexual freedom, as well as her anger (“Why me?”) and lack of pity for those worse off than she. It’s the one moment when Hausner renders Christine’s thoughts and feelings explicit. Otherwise, the audience has to infer them from her expressions, initially restricted more or less to passive observation and resigned submission, but expanded, after her cure, to include a somewhat broader range, running from self-satisfaction to befuddled helplessness.
For a film seemingly preoccupied with place, procedure, and the corporeal, dreams play a surprisingly significant role, though in keeping with Hausner’s docudrama aesthetic, they’re conveyed through dialogue rather than expressionistically visualized. On two occasions, dreams foretell Christine’s “cure,” which occurs in her sleep, and the next morning she claims to have heard a voice in the night commanding her to arise. Response to her recovery is mixed: Some respond with admiration, treating her to standing ovations, toasting her at mealtime, and whispering after her on the street, while others are more inclined to suspicion. The two women, Mrs. Huber and Hartl, echo Christine’s own feelings when they ask, “Why her?” The priest wonders whether it will reinforce her faith, convince her to set an example for the faithful. Hausner indicates Christine’s response to all this sound and fury through entirely visual means in one of the film’s most expressive shots: framing her sitting alone in chapel, hemmed in by massive, squat concrete columns, while lugubrious organ music plays.
At the farewell party on the pilgrims’ final night in Lourdes, the group awards Christine the prize for “best pilgrim” and the priest delivers an uplifting little pep talk, claiming her cure is a sign of God’s presence, the deity’s way of telling humanity, “You are not alone.” Interpersonal or existential, loneliness is the dominant chord sounding throughout Lourdes. The elderly man wryly comments, “Tomorrow, I go back to being alone.” His helper tries to buck him up, saying, “We’re not alone,” to which he sourly replies, “We are.” If the only sign to the contrary, standing between mankind and a desolate cosmos, remains Christine’s cure, the situation may well be precarious. Dancing with Kuno, she collapses in a heap before painfully regaining her feet. “If the cure doesn’t last,” says Mrs. Hartl or Huber, “then it isn’t a miracle. So He isn’t in charge.” “Who is, then?” inquires the other. With Christine propped against the wall, her mother brings around the wheelchair. While her helper, Maria, performs an onstage duet of the zesty, upbeat “Felicitá,” singing the praises of happiness achieved through romantic love and taking time for the little pleasures in life, Christine slowly sinks into her chair. Whether Christine is afraid to face the challenges presented by “normal life,” or succumbing again to her disease, remains an open question. Either way, for her, happiness is a warm chair.
Palisades Tartan’s 1080p transfer looks nearly—dare I say it?—immaculate. The helpers’ red uniforms dominate the compositions, along with an assortment of virginal blues and whites. Blacks, particularly prevalent during the candlelight procession, register sharply. The 5.1 Master Audio track doesn’t get much opportunity to kick up the dust, apart from several reprisals of Schubert’s "Ave Maria" and some funereal Bach organ music, until the concluding duet of Bono and Power’s ’80s disco-friendly "Felicitá" takes over.
One HD trailer, several trailers for other titles, and one "Talent Interview" that features less than two minutes of footage with Jessica Hausner speaking on her general idea for a "miracle film," as well as her interest in hierarchy as reflected in dress codes and uniforms, which certainly plays a role in the film, though the session, little better than a soundbite, leaves you craving a bit more.
Inscrutable as the powers that may or may not be, Jessica Hausner’s miracle play gives viewers on either side of the fence plenty to meditate on.