Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review - Lourdes

Every year, millions of people descend on the tiny French town of Lourdes praying for a miracle. Ever since the Virgin Mary apparently appeared there in front of Bernadette Soubirous, this location has become a place of hope for people suffering from debilitating illnesses and disabilities. They travel there on pilgrimage, clutching to the belief that praying at the shrine or washing in the sacred Lourdes water can result in miraculous cures, and most of them, needless to say, return home disappointed. Still they make the journey, led by blind and unyielding faith in God's benevolence, and every few years, a miracle is reported. Jessica Hausner's Lourdes follows a pilgrimage during which such an unlikely event does occur, and her film is one of the most remarkable studies of faith cinema has produced for many years.

What makes Lourdes so strangely riveting is the director's tone. She takes an observational approach, watching her subjects as they experience every odd aspect of the Lourdes experience. Her chief subject is Christine (Sylvie Testud), a young woman confined to a wheelchair by Multiple Sclerosis, who is paralysed from the neck down and completely dependent on the care of others. Despite her disability, Christine maintains a perky, optimistic outlook, enjoying herself on a rare excursion, and not giving a lot of credence to the notion that she may experience a miraculous recovery. "I'd rather go to Rome," she tells one nurse, "I prefer the cultural trips". Hausner's careful framing follows Christine's group as they are shuttled from one round of treatments to the next, via church services, photo opportunities and meals, all under the watchful eye of the stern Cécile (Elina Löwensohn).

Hausner is afforded plenty of opportunities to mock Lourdes, and others filmmakers would have undoubtedly found snarky humour in the crass commercialism of the place, or the often-forced sense of gaiety exhibited by the nurses, who provide an award at the end of the trip to the "Best Pilgrim." In one scene, we find a group members of the Order of Malta telling a joke about God and The Virgin Mary making holiday plans, and Mary says Lourdes is a great idea because she's "never been there before"; but Hausner simply takes this all in her stride and approaches it with the same objectivity, refusing to pass judgement on what she sees, allowing the audience to develop our own take on it. Her patient, ambiguous style even extends to the depiction of the miraculous event that does occur halfway through her narrative. As she is being wheeled through a grotto, Christine reaches out and brushes the wall with her hand. She withdraws the hand so quickly nobody even notices – even the viewer might wonder if we saw what we think we saw – and she is wheeled out of the frame with an inscrutable look on her face.

Given her situation, the actress playing Christine needs to do a great deal of performing with her face alone, so it is fortunate that Sylvie Testud is such an expressive figure. This is a masterpiece of contained, minimal acting. Testud's visage draws the eye effortlessly; she looks so fragile, but her face reveals her curiosity, thoughtfulness and wit. Her brief flirtation with a handsome male volunteer is portrayed in a touching and sweet fashion, and she plays her tentative reaction to her miraculous recovery beautifully. Her small, hesitant movements reveal Christine's nervousness at the unimaginable new life that has now opened up before her, one that is both exciting and fearful. All she has ever wanted is a "normal" life.

It is the reaction to Christine's transformation that most interests Hausner. As some of the pilgrims fawn over the miraculous figure in their midst, others snipe with petty comments that betray their jealousy – why is she the chosen one? Why not me? Hausner doesn't even give us the satisfaction of confirming the veracity of her protagonist's cure. She has to subject herself to testing by the an official medical committee, and in the stunning climactic sequence, she leaves Christine's fate hanging up in the air, inviting us to speculate on this enigmatic young woman's future. Lourdes is a beguiling and tantalising film, and Hausner's cool and wry filmmaking style proves to be the perfect approach to draw out the compelling mysteries at the heart of this tricky subject matter. Few films tackle issues of faith today and fewer still do so with genuine inquisitiveness. Lourdes deserves to be seen for that reason, and also for a central performance that is some kind of small miracle in itself.