Wednesday, January 19, 2011

LOURDES (2009)

The pilgrimage shrine at the spring where St. Bernadette is said to have seen the Virgin Mary, where the waters are reputed to have healing powers for the faithful, has been a ripe subject for satire almost from the beginning. In Austrian director Jessica Hausner Lourdes has found a relatively benign satirist. She avoids what might look like the obvious object of satire from the secular humanist perspective, the mythos of heavenly visitations and miraculous healings. Instead of an attack on faith and spirituality, Lourdes is a critique of the de-sacralization of the pilgrimage experience through custom, bureaucracy and commodification.

Hausner follows a tour group of pilgrims, who look much like any tour group found in any tourist trap, except for a disproportion of wheelchairs. They're thoroughly supervised, with the most handicapped assigned "helpers" who feed them and wheel them around if they haven't loved ones to do that for them. For the helpers, in many cases, working at Lourdes is just another job and not the most appealing among all those available to young people. For the clergy, too, a certain institutional cynicism sets in after a while. A priest tells this joke: Jesus, Mary and the Holy Spirit are discussing where to go on vacation this year. The Holy Spirit suggests Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but Jesus shoots down those ideas because they've gone to both places so often. How about Lourdes, then? The Blessed Virgin thinks that's a great idea -- "I've never been there before!"

One of our tour group is Christine (Sylvie Testud), who suffers from MS. She isn't the most enthusiastic or the most devout pilgrim, especially compared to her roommate, Frau Hartl (Gilette Barbier), who often proves more of a helper to Christine than the young woman who actually holds that job. The Lourdes environment isn't exactly conducive to spirituality, except perhaps for the most simplistically devout. Frau Hartl will make her devotions to a life-size Virgin statue in a hotel lobby, but pilgrims in town can pass souvenir shops filled with thousands of smaller-scale statues without batting an eye. If anything, the clergy seem determined to dampen expectations of miracles. We learn over the course of the film that the Church is actually admirably objective, though almost to a demoralizing degree, about appraising healings. They don't want to jump the gun before a relapse; to qualify as a miracle, a cure has to be permanent. As if to foreshadow the main event of the film, characters discuss a reputed recent miracle in which another MS patient rose and walked. A priest cautions them that with MS especially remissions and relapses are frequent.

Naturally, it's Christine who rises and walks. The news is received with skeptical tentativeness by the authorities, with reflected glory by some pilgrims, and with barely-concealed jealousy by others. The fortunate one gets a particularly dirty look from one mother whose daughter experienced a sort of near-miss earlier in the pilgrimage, recognizing and responding to her parent before lapsing back into unresponsiveness. The ways of God being, as ever, inscrutable, people wonder how Christine, of all pilgrims, deserves His grace. The mystery of His ways grows deeper as a helper suffers a seizure and is hospitalized, freeing up a spot for Christine, who had been disqualified earlier due to her disability, to go on the group's mountain-climbing trip. The group is eager, of course, to have their picture re-shot with an ambulatory Christine for the historical record. The lucky woman herself seems bemused rather than transfigured, and the story of her fellow-sufferer from the earlier pilgrimage clearly troubles her. Still, she takes advantage of every opportunity to climb mountains, dance with the uniformed male helpers and eat dessert with her own hands. Will it last? Christine takes a tumble on the dance floor, but she's still on her feet to accept the Best Pilgrim award at the end. Beyond that?...

Lourdes leaves the final answer ambiguous. To spoil things, it ends with Christine settling back into her wheelchair, which Frau Hartl has thoughtfully kept near, but that alone isn't enough for us to conclude that she'll never walk again. Taking her seat may be an act of simple weariness -- the spectacle of the helpers performing like asses at a final party is admittedly wearying -- or it may be a gesture of resignation. The most troubling thing about it is the sense that it doesn't matter one way or the other, to Christine or the other pilgrims. From a spiritual perspective, one of several from which viewers can choose, the message may be that the "miracle" itself doesn't matter, that there's no point to Christine staying on her feet because no one, her included, has responded to the healing with the appropriate reverence. An alternate message can be that Christine may as well sit down because the cure hasn't really changed the empty life to which she must return now that the pilgrimage is over. I don't find the ambiguity frustrating; it actually testifies to the subtle realism of Hausner's narrative. There may or may not have been a miracle, but Lourdes takes place in an environment where theme doesn't impose a single meaning on events.

Give our star a round of applause; Sylvie Testud, ladies and gentlemen!

Had this film been made in the United States, Sylvie Testud might have been a front-runner for the Oscar last year, since her role is what we tend to think of as awards-bait. I say "might have been" because she gives a nicely understated performance, unburdened by vocal tics or the need to give revelatory speeches, that might not have set off the Academy's master-thespian meter. As it is, Testud won a European Film Award for her trouble, which may prove that the less-is-more principle is appreciated somewhere.

The film itself plays out with commendable clarity, making its satirical points obviously enough but not blatantly. The nature of its satire reminded me a little of Robert Altman's movies, though Hausner does largely without the American's diffusive sprawl, keeping us consistently focused on Christine while emphasizing a few supporting characters enough to cinch the sense of a realistic social environment. Lourdes might have made a great subject for Altman (not to mention, closer to home, a subject for Jacques Tati), while the closest American equivalent to its concern with recovery and relapse is arguably Penny Marshall's Awakenings. Hausner's Lourdes is better than that and deserves some belated recognition in the U.S. as one of the better European films of the past year or so.


Michael C said...

Hey there, Samuel,
Great review, I loved this film, one of my highlights of the last year. I like how you rightly pointed out the film's non-blatant style of satire - for me, its the gentle unspooling of a satirical undertone that makes the film engaging and captivating. You've captured the ambiguity of the ending succinctly and eloquently, a pleasure to read. Cheers!

Sam Juliano said...

"The nature of its satire reminded me a little of Robert Altman's movies, though Hausner does largely without the American's diffusive sprawl, keeping us consistently focused on Christine while emphasizing a few supporting characters enough to cinch the sense of a realistic social environment."

Aye, Samuel, great point here. Ms. Hausner naviagtes a satiric strike against the fanaticism that annually informs a visit to this sacred site. At the outset, pertinent issues are raised by a specialist on multiple sclerosis. While it seems obvious that the film doesn’t buy into blind adulation, it’s also clear that Hausner is willing to broach the contradictions inherent in Catholic doctrine, where some unfortunates are shot down indiscriminately, while devotion is often ‘rewarded’ with terminal disease. Perhaps the most facile aspect of Catholicism, (and for any religion for that matter) is the belief that things are there for a reason, and don’t need to be explained. The actor Gerhard Liebman plays a priest who advances this theological propaganda with both a straight face and a forced smile, and there’s a thematic connection in this sense to scenes where stores are selling religious articles again showcasing the hypocritical marriage of the ‘reverential’ and the ‘commercial.’ But scenes like the candlelight vigil in the courtyard, or the congregation of wheelchairs are impossible images to shake, whether one believes these are accentuating a practical cult worship sustained by tradition, or a genuine spirit aimed at fostering goodwill. Either way these are unforgettable visual compositions.There’s a cinema verite style to the film, and it seems the benign spirit of Robert Bresson was overseeing the filming, with an attention to detail and to overriding theme, rather than any narrative compliance. In any case, if anything, the great director’s inspiration manifested itself even more in the film’s uncompromising austerity, even if Lourdes really has more up its sleeve than it’s willing to let on.

You have authored a magnificent review Samuel, one that captures the thematic and artsitic essence of this understated, yet beautiful and compelling film, that has stayed with me many months later as the best film of 2010.

Samuel Wilson said...

Michael: I'm sure Hausner as a satirist had to be careful to ensure the cooperation of the Lourdes authorities, and to achieve what she does satirically may be sort of a miracle in its own right.

Sam J: If Frau Hartl is arguably the most blindly faithful character in the movie she's also one of the most sympathetic in her sincere desire to help Christine. She's arguably the true "Best Pilgrim" but her simplicity seems lost in the touristy, institutional aspects of the pilgrimage. Again, Hausner got away with a lot by targeting an overall absence of spirituality rather than trying to debunk Lourdes, though there's no endorsement of miracle claims, either. Meanwhile, I probably still haven't seen enough Bresson to recognize him in Hausner's direction, and I can't shake that strange sense of a Tati influence in the film's detailed attentiveness to its milieu. I'll have to think about it some more.

A note on dates: I've seen some people ranking Lourdes among the best films of 2010. Different people have different criteria for inclusion, some here in the U.S. going by U.S. release dates, some basing it on home-country release, others on festival premiere dates. Whichever year you assign Lourdes to, it'd be one that year's better movies.