Amazingly assured and super-cautious in tackling its controversial subject matter, Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009) engages so many contradictory strategies it’s a wonder it doesn’t implode. Its mode both satiric and investigative, detached yet full of quiet wonder, the movie announces the arrival of a major directorial talent.
The story follows Christine (Sylvie Testud), a young woman of a rather rationalist mindset, suffering from multiple sclerosis. Wheelchair-bound, she decides to visit the famous Lourdes pilgrimage center, built around a cave that supposedly saw a visitation by the Virgin Mary. Even though not very religious, it’s Christine and not any of the truly pious pilgrims around her who experiences a miracle (or was it one…?) and starts walking again (we don’t learn whether this will prove a permanent recovery).
The way the narrative is structured, it’s both firmly centered on Christine and flooding her story with an overwhelming, steady commotion of a religious event running 24/7. The magnificent opening shot firmly establishes the large dining room as a space that will recur a number of times. It is so carefully choreographed and so seamless in the way it honors multiple, distinctive human presences that it made me think of Jacques Tati’s large set pieces.
Indeed, the Tati link only proves stronger as the movie progresses. The constant movement of small and big human groups – purposeful yet almost abstract in their appearance – is taken straight from Playtime (1967). Lourdes even has some of that film’s sense of humor, as Hausner directs our attention to various paces each pilgrim assumes, and to the various means they use to do it (electric & standard wheelchairs, crutches, etc).
Hausner is great at the very same thing Tati was: namely, showing human conduct as a funny, absurd (but relatively harmless) ritual. There’s a brief scene in Trafic (1972) in which a priest, picking up pieces of a smashed car engine, looks as though he was preparing the communion wafers to be handed out. It is the same amused and curious look that Hausner turns onto the religious goings-on in the pilgrimage center. (See the Tati fragment here, starting at 1:40)
The use of sound is as thoughtful as the camerawork. When we see Christine making her way to the cave, we hear a mass going on (words and music amplified by speakers), but we never see the ritual itself: it’s like a tapestry, a given, an irrelevant background the women doesn’t care about, and yet which influences her life in a way she’s not quite ready for.
Hausner is great at using gentle zooming and slight focus-pulling (see the scene of Christine’s confession for the latter). But the area of her biggest strength is the framing. Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene in which Christine realizes that her gift may well be taken away from her (or maybe it wasn’t a gift at all, but mere coincidence to start with). As she keeps leaning against the wall for assurance, too afraid to make a step, I was sure Hausner will push the camera in her face and make us see the anguish “even better”. Nothing of the sort. The camera remains remote, and still our sympathy and fear are piercing. Terrific movie.