The strapline for Jessica Hausner’s wonderful Lourdes is ‘Nothing tests faith more than a miracle’. The other issue that’s central to the film is the deeply human ‘Why me?’.
Lourdes is set among a tour party to the shrine organised by the Order of Malta. It centres on Christine who suffers from multiple schlerosis; her hands permanently clenched, her upper and lower limbs not functioning. Christine, played with astonishing restraint and power by Sylvie Testud, is totally dependent on others, and goes on pilgrimages essentially because ‘It’s the only way I get out’. Her first reaction to Lourdes is ‘It’s a bit touristy’; she prefers the more cultural trips. Christine’s first dependence is on a flighty young female nurse whoselou main interest is in the male nurses. Christine is then taken over by the older, and colder, Madame Hartl, who’s given to kneeling to pray in front of the huge Virgin Mary with its neon halo in the hotel lobby, and who wheels Christine about while clutching a plaster statue of the Holy Mother.
The group is run by the frosty, pinched Cecile who believes in order and piety in all things, and, unsurprisingly, has her own secret. And that is the slight problem with this film, aside from Christine, to whose portrayal Testud brings considerable subtlety and real charisma, the other characters can seem rather caricatured. Not only Madame Hartl (Gilette Barbier), and Cecile (Eline Lowensohn), but the flighty young nurses, and the two older women who act as a small Greek chorus that asks the priest in charge the awkward questions, are a little underwritten. But there is also a gripping silence about the film; dialogue is sparing and necessary, and Cecile’s is the only name given in the whole film.
However, Lourdes doesn’t reach for easy, sceptical irony. There’s plenty of sardonic wit, and the full extent of Catholic kitsch is presented. But Hausner carefully points to the way in which the shrine works hard to suggest that physical healing is only ever a small part of any pilgrimage there. Every one leaves Lourdes with something, but Hausner also suggests that whatever healing might mean, it might only ever be a false dawn. The final cringe-making scene of a karaoke party with the priest dad-dancing with the nuns, and the ‘able-bodied’ confronting their own embarrassments suggests that what is unresolved might possibly stay that way. Christine, who has asked ‘why me’ at the start of the film, is forced to ask the same question at the end!
Lourdes is great film making, darkly detailed and with a pitch-perfect beauty.