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!"
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.
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.