Directed by Jessica Hausner
Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner's third feature, Lourdes, pivots on a possibly miraculous healing at the French pilgrimage site of the title, but it unfolds in some of the most mundane places possible: long, snaking queues of tourists, fern-decorated lobbies, a bare-walled dormitory room. Hausner also pays special deadpan attention to the neon glow of a souvenir shop; a scene in a large sanctuary focuses a good deal more on the scale of crowd management than any particular Catholic message. This early tourist-trap emphasis suggests a Buñuelian attack on organized religion—emphasis on organized—but Hausner's approach to the problem of miracles gradually becomes more general.
The French actress Sylvie Testud, in a remarkable physical performance, plays Christine, an MS sufferer on a rigorously scheduled group pilgrimage to Lourdes. Christine is no less hopeful for a miracle healing than anyone else on the trip, and she solemnly goes through each stage of her visit, but she doesn't appear to be particularly devout. (At one point she tells a volunteer whom she recognizes from a trip to Rome, “I rather prefer the cultural trips.”) Early in the film, Hausner and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht also brilliantly underscore Christine's practically transactional relationship to her faith in a few shots of her sleeping: a faint glow falls on her, as if she's a fresco lying in wait of full coin-op illumination.
A few days into the trip, though, the extraordinary happens: first Christine moves her hands, then her legs, and after a few unsteady first steps, she is able to walk wherever she pleases. She's taken by a small coterie to an official medical office, where a clerk responds to excited claims of the miraculous by saying “You're not the only ones today” and pointing to a waiting room. Doctors later inform Christine that she might be experiencing a temporary remission of her debilitating disease, and not technically a miracle. Nonetheless, Christine begins tentatively planning an ambulatory future, all the while readily admitting that she feels no inner illumination. Soon her companions—notably Christine's roommate on the trip, a silent woman who had taken to wheeling her around, and two women who wonder why a more devout man was not the one healed—feel nothing but jealousy and disappointment.
A few of the variously afflicted say they are in Lourdes as much for social reasons—for an escape from the loneliness and isolation of their illnesses—as for religious ones, throwing into relief the pettiness that follows on the heels of Christine's inexplicable recovery. If Hausner's cool, minimal visual style (mostly static shots, occasional zooms) seems to betray some skepticism of religious institutions, she appears to have no faith whatsoever in people's ability to cope gracefully with not getting what they want. That might make Lourdes sound a bit like a miserablist exercise, but the film sustains a very grim, very subtle drollness, something that enlivens the proceedings without diminishing the seriousness of the questions raised by them. Perhaps Hausner's tonal high-wire act is the real miracle here.
Opens February 17 at Film Forum