Lourdes – A Review

28 03 2010

Sylvie Testud in 'Lourdes'

For the first half hour or so, Jessica Hausner’s new film Lourdes feels almost like a documentary. It opens with a shot of a hotel dining room, as a group of pilgrims, many of them wheelchair-bound, arrives in the eponymous French town late one evening. Among them is Christine, played by Sylvie Testud, a quiet young woman robbed of the use of her hands and legs by multiple sclerosis. Fed by a volunteer nurse and dependent on others to push her around, Christine only goes on trips like this, she half-jokes, because they offer her a rare chance to ‘see the world’.

Over the next few days we follow the pilgrims as they visit a succession of shrines, baths and Catholic masses, in search of spiritual and, as becomes increasingly apparent, physical healing. The camera hovers for the most part at a detached, respectful distance, leaving us to pick out Christine and her companions in the huge crowds generated by industrial-scale pilgrimage tourism. (Can it be a coincidence that, like Wally of Where’s Wally fame, Christine wears a little red hat?).     

What we see of Lourdes is, by and large, rather mundane. The crowds of pilgrims queuing at the entrances to grottos and churches seem almost as if they’re queuing at a supermarket, while the recurring hotel lobbies and tacky gift shops offer little in the way of religious inspiration. Only a torch-lit parade one night presents a genuinely uplifting spectacle, both for the viewer and for the pilgrims themselves.

The wide-eyed Christine takes all of this in with a mixture of polite interest and, one senses, a little boredom. She certainly shows less overt religious devotion than her elderly roommate Frau Hartl (Gilette Barbier), who at one point is seen praying desperately before a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Exactly what it is that Frau Hartl is praying for is never made explicit, and, indeed, it’s never really that important in the context of the story. Instead, Hausner’s film concentrates on the nature of pilgrimage itself and on the way that, even in the holiest of places, people struggle to put aside their petty, worldly concerns.

Two elderly women in the group, for example, spend much of their time arguing about exactly which room a famous miracle supposedly took place in, or tutt-tutting over the fact that a supposedly ‘cured’ wheelchair user doesn’t stand up to prove it during the course of a video interview.  And Herr Hruby, a partially-paralysed old man becomes, if anything, gloomier than usual when confronted with evidence of another pilgrim’s ‘miracle’ cure. Even when Frau Hartl helps to push Christine around, we’re left to wonder whether she’s genuinely motivated by kindness or rather by a desire to curry favour with an all-seeing God.

Waiting for a miracle?

On top of this, there’s an awkward, burgeoning relationship between Christine and Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), a possibly married Order of Malta employee who is helping to lead the group. Kuno behaves in a protective, gentlemanly way towards Christine, but there is clearly a real bond between the two of them which goes much deeper and which raises some awkward, unspoken questions. Would he take things further if she were able-bodied? Could he come to love her as she is?

There are questions too for the priest embedded with the group. Why does God heal some people and not others? And what does one have to do in order to qualify for a miracle cure? Such theological head-scratchers are, we feel, only the first, tangible signs of a deep, uneasy anxiety in the group as a whole. Even while they’re asking these questions, the pilgrims are watching one another for signs of a miracle, both willing and not-willing each other on. And if a miracle is to happen in their midst, how will they react? Happily? Jealously? Cynically? As with much else in Lourdes, this elephant in the room is handled with much subtlety and restraint, and we are never quite sure what any character really, deeply feels.

In the end, Lourdes is a modest and mature film, but not an entirely surprising one. Hausner clearly believes that we can learn a lot from watching other people acting out their own lives and revealing only what they choose to. By and large, she is right. Her film neither attempts to satirise pilgrimage tourism nor to give us the Roman Catholic party line.  Rather, Lourdes serves as a backdrop for a much older story about how humans beings must learn to accept the vagaries of chance, or die trying.

Lourdes is showing in UK cinemas now.

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