PRINT February 2010


Jessica Hauser’s Lourdes

THE PROTAGONISTS of Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner’s three feature films are all odd girls out. Frequently the subjects of gossip and backbiting, they are each defined, to varying degrees, by a certain attachment to Catholicism. The titular teenager of Lovely Rita (2001), for instance, is a slump-shouldered weirdo at Saint Ursula’s school. In Hotel (2004), Irene, a new employee at an inn deep in the Austrian Alps, is convinced that her prized possession—a diamond-encrusted cross necklace—has been stolen by one of her coworkers. And in Hausner’s new film, Lourdes (which opens at Film Forum in New York on February 17), wheelchair-bound Christine, hoping for a miraculous cure of her multiple sclerosis, becomes the target of envy, doubt, and derision among her fellow pilgrims.

One of the most gifted young filmmakers to emerge from Austria in recent years, Hausner has no interest in glib pronouncements, and Lourdes neither condemns religious faith nor wholly embraces it. Indeed, filmed at the eponymous pilgrimage site in southwestern France at the foothills of the Pyrenees (few productions have been granted such access), Lourdes asks more questions than it answers, leaving us with the uneasy sense that the divine is ultimately better understood as the arbitrary or the coincidental.

Shot with clinical precision in mostly long, static takes, Lourdes unfolds with a quiet, cool choreography. As the film opens, workers set tables in the dining commons of a hotel where a group of pilgrims are staying; “Ave Maria” plays faintly on the sound track. Slowly the diners file in, some in wheelchairs, others using walkers, accompanied and ministered to by the officers, nurses, and volunteers of the Order of Malta, whose crisp attire—army green military outfits and black berets for the officers, white uniforms and headdresses and red sweaters for the nurses and volunteers—reflects the rigidity, order, and hierarchy of Lourdes. Christine, paralyzed from the neck down, is fed by Maria, a volunteer in her twenties who quickly becomes more interested in flirting with the charming head officer, Kuno, than in caretaking. Christine is also attended by two others: head nurse Cécile, a martinet who announces that a prize will be given for “best pilgrim” and arranges group photos at the Rosary Basilica; and Mme Hartl, Christine’s devout, able-bodied, elderly roommate, who comes to Lourdes in search of a mission and finds it by praying for Christine’s cure.

No model of piety, Christine succinctly explains why she embarked on the pilgrimage: “It’s the only way I get out.” Though she doesn’t join Cécile and Maria in reciting the Hail Mary when they carefully put her to bed, Christine dutifully participates in the town’s rituals—the blessings, the visits to the grotto, the administering of Lourdes water—in hopes that she will be healed. And when she is, slowly rising from her bed, brushing her hair, and dressing herself, the awe her recovery inspires is soon supplanted by the banalities of bureaucracy (Christine’s miracle must be officially certified by the Lourdes medical office) and the indignation of those who feel she is not worthy enough to have been touched by God.

Hausner has acknowledged Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) as an influence—a touchstone as well for Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007), another compelling recent film about miracles. Yet whereas Reygadas’s movie, every frame imbued with rapture, treats its divine intervention solemnly, Lourdes views thaumaturgy as a manifestation of both the sublime and the absurd. Watching Christine—played by Sylvie Testud, an exceptional actress capable of the most feral intensity (as in 2000’s Murderous Maids) and ritualized blankness (as in 2007’s Eat, for This Is My Body)—slowly reanimate is indeed a transcendent moment. Whether or not the “miracle” is merely a temporary remission of her illness, as one physician asserts, seems beside the point when Christine claims some of the corporeal pleasures denied her for most of her life. But her actions, in one of Hausner’s many wry touches, soon turn into spectacle: The entire staff of a café gathers to applaud Christine eating an ice cream sundae on her own.

“Why me and not . . . ? What I mean is, I hope to be the right person,” Christine declares somewhat tentatively during the final-night festivities at the hotel, hobbling onstage to collect the Best Pilgrim award. Is Christine blessed, just lucky, or neither? Hausner refuses to cynically dismiss as trumped-up magical thinking the possibility that miracles can happen. But nor does she underestimate the simmering rage of those who feel entitled to God’s grace. Two gossipy matrons cluck at Christine as she dances with Kuno, appalled that she’s taking more pleasure in body than in soul. These women nearly choke on their own schadenfreude, wondering just how permanent Christine’s recovery is, their own holier-than-thou attitude upended by their inability to fully comprehend divine will. Sometimes, there’s God so quickly. But he doesn’t travel as fast as jealousy, resentment, and pettiness spread.

Melissa Anderson, a regular contributor to the Village Voice, is currently writing a monograph on Jacques Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort for BFI Film Classics.