Jessica Hausner, Lourdes, 2009, still from a color digital video, 99 minutes. Christine (Sylvie Testud).

AS BEFITS A FILM both set in and titled after a city where five million hopeful pilgrims journey every year, Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes revolves around an act that seemingly partakes of the miraculous. When Christine (Sylvie Testud)—a young woman with multiple sclerosis whose searching gaze contrasts pointedly with her completely immobilized body—tours the eponymous town as part of a group of pilgrims, the heady atmosphere appears to do its work. Halfway through the film, she arises from her bed, apparently cured. But unlike other contemporary “miracle films” like Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007), the alleged marvel is attended by a certain ambiguity—as a doctor explains, the result could be only temporary, a part of her disease’s normal fluctuations—and by placing it in the middle of the film, Hausner makes it a starting point for inquiry rather than the closed-off, Ordet-derived payoff of the Reygadas.

Still, Lourdes conjures a world in which the miraculous seems nearly ordinary. Fixing her characters in static, almost-too-exact compositions, Hausner gives her mise-en-scène a hushed, peaceful quality, often deliberately shutting out background activity—the gossiping of fellow pilgrims, the flirting of volunteers—by muting sound and focusing the camera’s gaze intensely on the shot’s subject. When such an approach is enlivened by a repeated eye-of-God establishing shot, a way of filming even drab halogen lights with a heavenly glow, and the musical accompaniment of Ave Maria and Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (the latter not coincidentally the theme from Tarkovsky’s Solaris), the result is a world thrown open to otherworldly possibility.

After the miracle, the focus shifts. As Christine imagines a potential future for herself, Hausner turns her attention to the needs and dissatisfactions of the film’s other characters: a priest who views Christine principally as an instructive example, the superfluous woman who used to push her wheelchair with proprietary satisfaction, and two skeptics who wonder why a seemingly secular woman is healed while other more pious pilgrims remain unaffected. In a final tour-de-force sequence, as Christine enjoys a tenuous postmiracle dance, the camera visits the other characters in turn, foregrounding their longings and frustrations as they brush up against the viewer’s gaze. The mysteries of life (which some call God) may remain unknowable, but in Hausner’s remarkable film, the needs and doubts of mankind are made all too clear.

Lourdes has its US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York, February 17–March 2. For more details, click here.

Andrew Schenker