With wry humour and religious austerity, Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes explores female potency as hopeful pilgrims jostle for a miracle. O, come all ye faithful.
Come Hell Or Holy Water by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Filmed entirely on location, Syvlie Testud spent hours in her wheelchair, stock-still and twisted, anxious not to offend the real pilgrims passing by. And with 67 miraculous healings in 150 years, the shrine has become a sacred place, synonymous with affliction and hope. Hausner’s film may not be transcendental, or even transgressive, but with its fluorescent Madonnas and souvenir holy water, the sardonic eye it casts over Lourdes’ tacky commercialism and soulless tourism allows the human drama to really sparkle.
Recent winner of Best Feature at the Bird’s Eye View film festival, Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes is an exploration of female power and isolation, from the stony-faced miracle-bestowing Virgin Mary to disabled non-believer Christine. It’s a theme Jessica Hausner has been ironically casting her eye over since her début feature Lovely Rita and 2004 Cannes favourite Hotel. But in Lourdes, Sylvie Testud takes up the mantle in her vibrantly seething portrait of wheelchair-bound Christine, a godless MS sufferer who embarks on a pilgrimage to the Pyrenees shrine in order to break up the lonely monotony of her everyday life. Unable to move from the neck up, she is fed, bathed and put to bed by volunteer sisters of the Maltese Order, a routine humiliation she accepts with silent humility and resignation. Until one day, she rises up.
Focusing on the pilgrims’ ritual journey through Lourdes’ basilica, baths and grottoes, its potency as a place of hope increases. The film opens with an unflinching shot looking down over a staid hotel dining room, as staff slop soup into tureens. But the scene is injected with an ironic, kindly humour as wheelchairs zip and crutches hurriedly clatter, a wry perspective which echoes Christine’s patiently immobile gaze, only the head occasionally tilting. And unlike the sententious priest, who sees no reason why wheelchair sufferers should be any less blessed than the able-bodied, Hausner does not keep the disabled at a condescending distance, elegantly sketching the futureless misery and submissive passivity experienced by Christine and Herr Hruby.
Christine starts off as little more than an awkward object either to be wheeled around by the overzealous Frau Hartl trying to secure a close-range blessing, or as a burden to be unloaded when a Maltese Knight sets her volunteer carer’s heart aflutter. But as the film progresses, she becomes more human, vivaciously taking part in the conversations going on around her and flirting with the dashing Kuno, played with suitably buttoned-up stiffness by Bruno Todeschini. Patronisingly aloof and painfully rigid, the Christian volunteers joke about the desperate belief of the afflicted clinging to the hope of salvation or cure, their stiff coldness in stark contrast to the warmth and humanity that the sufferers crave.
The pilgrims may be jealous and fickle gossips, but as they come together in this community of hope, they slowly overcome their petit-bourgeois suspicions and start to care for each other. Frau Hartl even sneaks Christine out one night to attend a procession of light, a congregation of the faithful united in candlelight. Hausner’s miracle however is not a question of faith; it is non-believer Christine who finds herself healing, her limbs slowly unfurling in the latter reels of the film. But ever ambiguous, there is also a Catholic resonance to Christine, dressed in whites and blues with only a red hat to upset the virginal balance. Also, intringuingly, there is a kind of sanative antagonism between Christine and Cécile – as one becomes paler and sicker the other brighter and healthier. Until Christine finally takes Cécile’s place on the exclusive mountain excursion.
Despite being awarded Best Pilgrim at the farewell party, Christine’s miracle scandalises the pilgrims who are both jealous and indignant. Why her? Why not Herr Hruby? If God is good and all powerful, why does He not heal everyone? Will it last? Is it an act of God or a brief remission? Hausner leaves these questions deliberately unanswered, drawing a (white) veil over this miracle-in-waiting. This furtive wonder even escapes causality, revealing itself only slowly and with no apparent cause – first a sensation, then a dream, a hand scraping the rock. It is this unresolved tension between the arbitrary and the divinely inspired that provides the film’s philosophical spine, but it also leaves Christine in a murky limbo, a bystander to her own destiny.
Emerging from her metallic chrysalis, Christine becomes more animated and alive, daring to pursue her crush on an enchanted Kuno. Finally, she feels included, part of the world. A woman at last. Her prayer for life not to pass her by has been granted, her existence given new meaning. Dancing with Kuno she confesses she has never been so happy, now she has a future. But as she trips, and sinks slowly down into her abandoned wheelchair, the dread realisation comes that this miracle may not last.
Yet still she smiles a Mona Lisa smile. Perhaps an illumination of the miracle inside her. Or the bitter resignation of a paradise lost? But Lourdes in all its ambiguity is a celebration of the greyscale. There is no monochrome miracle, only faith, hope and love. And the realisation it’s not the miracle that matters, but the pilgrim’s progress.
Lourdes is released in the UK on 26th March 2010.