Lourdes (2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Welcome back to Theology 101. In our last class, we talked about The Rapture and the possibility that God is a narcissistic turd. Today, we will discuss miracles and the possibility that the Virgin Mary hasn’t got any more influence over her narcissistic, turdy lord and master than any other woman who has subordinated herself to an overbearing man.

Not a very dignified way to begin a review of a thoughtful film, I know, but in a way, it captures the very real life that Austrian director and screenwriter Jessica Hausner portrays in her examination of pilgrims in search of a cure for life’s afflictions. Unlike the real heavenly rewards offered to all in Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, the hope for a cure is like a nagging, not altogether welcome itch for the multitudes who come to the spot in southwestern France where asthmatic Bernadette Soubirous saw the Immaculate Conception and scratched at the ground in a natural grotto to bring forth water that is said to heal the sick and injured.

Lourdes has become a massive monument not only to a strong faith passed from generation to generation but also to impressive human industry in service of the divine. To the magnificent edifices and well-ordered worship routines targeted at currying favor with the Virgin Mary comes the group of pilgrims on which Hausner trains her penetrating gaze. The group tour to Lourdes has been arranged by men and women of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a service organization that resembles the Salvation Army in its use of military uniforms and sister nurse garb. The opening shot of a dining room that volunteers in the Order, able-bodied “civilians,” and disabled individuals in wheelchairs slowly fill is taken from a high point of view, as though a divine presence were appraising this latest group of petitioners.

Cécile (Elina Löwensohn), a severe-looking nurse, is in charge. Like any other tour group leader, she outlines the activities for each day, gathers her flock for outings by holding up an umbrella, and sees to the care of the invalids who are being tended by young, inexperienced volunteers who come and go each tour. Our attentions as an audience are drawn to one young woman, Christine (Sylvie Testud), who has lost the use of her arms and legs. Her volunteer caregiver, a pretty redhead named Maria (Léa Seydoux), is more interested in the male “soldiers” than in seeing to Christine’s needs. She abandons Christine in her chair at one point and tells Christine that she usually goes skiing during her vacations but decided to volunteer because she needs a purpose in life—this after Christine has revealed in a prayer circle that she feels useless. Still, Christine is unfailingly polite and pleasant to everyone, rewarding callousness with a rueful smile that has become part of the armor she must wear when facing a world in which she is relatively helpless, quite dependent, and almost completely invisible.

Christine reports having dreams that the Virgin Mary has spoken to her and cured her. She attracts the hopeful attention of Frau Hartl (Gilette Barbier), a very devout, able-bodied helper who rooms with her to tend to any of her nighttime needs. Frau Hartl pushes Christine to the front of a gigantic chapel where a mass in English is being held; Cécile scolds them for leaving the group, saying that being in front doesn’t give anyone an advantage with God. Frau Hartl also takes Christine, somewhat against her will, to an evening mass outside the grotto; they pass by the group’s priest and two Order members as one of them is telling a sacrilegious joke that suggests the Virgin Mary has never been to Lourdes. Aside from these deviations from the group agenda, Christine follows the regular rounds: going to the baths where the infirm have Lourdes water poured over their heads and hands, seeing a film of pilgrims who claim to have been cured, and moving in the snaking line to the grotto, where worshippers through the decades have rubbed the talismanic rock walls smooth with their hands and their kisses.

Christine has been on other pilgrimages, mainly because it’s the only way someone in a wheelchair can take a vacation without much trouble. She met Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), a handsome and courteous soldier in the Order, on a previous tour in Rome and nurses a crush on him. Christine notices a sly flirtation between Kuno and Maria, and we can see her competitive spirit leap inside her. She sees a young woman, obviously brain damaged, suddenly awaken in recognition of her mother; the two wheelchair-bound women regard each other and smile. And then as Christine is being wheeled through the grotto, she lifts her hand to touch the rock wall; that evening, she rises from bed, goes into the bathroom, and combs her hair.

Is it a miracle? Does she deserve to have a miracle visited upon her? The second half of the film shows how Christine becomes a minor celebrity applauded wherever she goes, acts on her feelings for Kuno, and suffers the envy of her fellow pilgrims who were not granted their miracle. Christine had confessed her anger over her illness: “Why me?” was her lament. Soon, that lament becomes “Why her and not me?” with the tour priest saying that miraculous cures occur all the time at Lourdes, only they are interior, a healing of the spirit. There is a lot to be said for finding spiritual peace, but the very real limitations of life as a quadriplegic are not glossed over in this film. The image of the pilgrims holding candles in paper cones as they listen to evening prayers is as beautiful and moving as the crippled and infirm among Lourdes’ thousands of pilgrims are sad and sobering. It’s clear what sort of a healing the invalids want at Lourdes.

It also becomes pretty clear that Christine did not get her miracle. We learn far into the film that her infirmity is the result of multiple sclerosis. Anyone with any familiarity with the disorder knows that MS sufferers have good periods and bad periods on their way to total disability. Christine’s case is fairly advanced, but given the power of her own mind and motivation to be seen so she can compete for Kuno’s affection, it seems fairly clear that she effected her own temporary cure. A line said to new believer Sharon in The Rapture seems appropriate here: “You hate your job; you hate your life; but you want to feel special. Instead of letting me do that, you’re rushing off to something that’s not even there.” Christine wins a statue of the Virgin Mary as best pilgrim of the trip—for being cured, of course—and then is just left standing on the stage after a short speech, her moment in the sun over for her resentful and indifferent companions and further humiliation waiting in the wings.

Hausner seems to have a jaundiced view of God, shown by emphasizing how puny Christine—indeed any pilgrim—is. One shot that I particularly like is when Christine is shown sitting in the chapel. We can hear the service, but we can only see Christine in a sliver, almost crowded out of the scene by enormous stone pillars on either side of her. It actually looks as though God could just as easily crush her as save her.

I must admit that as a fan of The Song of Bernadette, I was quite shocked to see the tacky statuary that adorns the grotto, from a large-than-life golden diorama of Jesus being entombed after his death to a Virgin Mary perched in the nook where Bernadette first saw her. But it was also incredible to see what really goes on at Lourdes and to gaze on the breathtaking scenery in this mountainous region. As with The Rapture, I find both the characters in the film, well realized by all the actors, and the real-life pilgrims—their devotion, faith, doubts, pettiness, and utter humanness—extremely touching and well worth loving. They each deserve a miracle. I hope they get one. l

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    28th/03/2010 to 10:24 am

    Wholly original in its concept and execution, Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes is a cross between the austerity of Robert Bresson and the deadpan minimalism of Aki Kaurismaki as the film broaches issues of faith and celestial power without offering any concrete answers. As a work of religious custom and orthodoxy, and as a showcase of the somber, almost intimidating meditative beauty of Christian rituals, Lourdes is unquestionably an arresting film, right from the opening scene where visitors are gathered in a holding area, while Franz Schubert’s ravishing “Ave Maria” is sung on the soundtrack with an entrancing spirituality, through it’s adherence to tradition and reverence, beautifully lit by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, in a number of stationary shots. But Gschlacht wisely lets the magnificence of the settings stand on their own. The painterly compositions are often underscored by some of J.S. Bach’s most spiritually captivating organ works.

    The question remains however what is Ms. Hausner trying to imply here, and is this basically a satiric strike against the fanaticism that annually informs a visit to this sacred site. At the film’s center is a petite wheelchair-bound woman, played superbly by Sylvie Testud, who doesn’t seem at all caught up in all the religious euphoria, until an event later on changes her life, but still doesn’t mitigate pertinent issues raised by a specialist on multiple sclerosis. While it seems obvious that the film doesn’t buy into blind adulation, it’s also clear that Hausner is willing to broach the contradictions inherent in Catholic doctrine, where some unfortunates are shot down indiscriminately, while devotion is often ‘rewarded’ with terminal disease. Perhaps the most facile aspect of Catholicism, (and for any religion for that matter) is the belief that things are there for a reason, and don’t need to be explained. The actor Gerhard Liebman plays a priest who advances this theological propaganda with both a straight face and a forced smile, and there’s a thematic connection in this sense to scenes where stores are selling religious articles again showcasing the hypocritical marriage of the ‘reverential’ and the ‘commercial.’ But scenes like the candlelight vigil in the courtyard, or the congregation of wheelchairs are impossible images to shake, whether one believes these are accentuating a practical cult worship sustained by tradition, or a genuine spirit aimed at fostering goodwill. Either way these are unforgettable visual compositions.

    There’s a cinema verite style to the film, and it seems the benign spirit of Robert Bresson was overseeing the filming, with an attention to detail and to overriding theme, rather than any narrative compliance. In any case, if anything, the great director’s inspiration manifested itself even more in the film’s uncompromising austerity, even if Lourdes really has more up its sleeve than it’s willing to let on.

    Final Rating: **** 1/2 (of 5)

    Note: I saw ‘Lourdes’ all by my lonesome on Wednesday night, February 17th at 10:00 P.M. at Manhattan’s Film Forum in an almost empty theatre on it’s opening day. Still, I expect the weekend to bring in far larger numbers. Despite the fact that the film deliberately avoided any concrete position, I like this method of “observance/viewer interpretation.” As I stated in the review it was an exceedingly beautiful film to look at. The best review of the film I’ve seen is by none other than that intellectual writer extraordinaire Jon Joseph Lanthier, whose review here appeared in Slant. Jon awarded the film 3 stars out of 4.

    My father’s oldest brother, who passed in 2000 at the age of 83, visited Lourdes annually for over 30 years, as he was a devout Catholic and a long serving usher at our local parish. I heard some wonderful stories from him.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/03/2010 to 11:13 am

    Sam – The film can’t help but have a verite feel, shot as it was at Lourdes with thousands of actual pilgrims populating many scenes.

    I had a strange feeling watching it. Secular Jew that I am, I still have a distaste for idol worship. It’s a peculiar thing to see how idolatry is such a fixture in a religion that worships a Jew as the son of God.

    I also was extremely struck by a line in The Song of Bernadetter that fits this film to a tee. When the old nun, resentful of Bernadette and suspecting that she is a fraud, confronts her for evidence of her suffering, Bernadette apologizes and then shows her the huge tumor on her leg. Although a bit confused in its message (do we have to suffer to be one of God’s chosen vessels or don’t we), it still comes out forcefully that “we cannot storm the gates of heaven. We must be chosen.”

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