- Well-healed? Christine (Sylvie Testud), at Lourdes.
Where to begin to talk about Lourdes, an enigmatic little film, in French, by the 38-year-old Austrian writer/director Jennifer Hausner? After about an hour of its 96 minutes, something happens that I normally wouldn't reveal. But this isn't a mystery or a thriller -- at least, not in the conventional sense -- so here goes.
Lourdes revolves around Christine (Sylvie Testud), who appears to be a quadriplegic, living in a Catholic facility for people with special needs. She's well cared for, and every night, two novices lift her into her bed, then kneel beside it, reciting a rote and useless "Hail Mary" in unison.
I said "appears to be" because, during a group "pilgrimage" to the holy French city of Lourdes, Christine experiences the miracle that all of the other patients had been rather greedily wishing for themselves: In the middle of the night, toward the end of their stay, Christine arises, dresses herself, and, the next day, feeds herself and walks. She's cured of the crippling effects of the multiple sclerosis she's had for many years, although the doctors caution that the recovery may only be temporary.
What, then, does it mean? What do the film's creators mean it to mean?
There's lots of praying in Lourdes -- lots and lots of it -- and lots of hymns and church services, some of them intimate, and some like Crystal Cathedral-style televangelism set in the antique surroundings of the historic 14th-century castle at Lourdes. And yet, never once does Hausner give us the sense that God exists, nor that any of the clergymen sincerely believe he does. Their explanations and assurances to the struggling faithful are as pro forma as the film's closing titles, and the putative believers all seem to want something for themselves (including practical answers to recondite questions).
Why does God cure some people and not others, give some people musical talent but not others? "God is free," says the well-rehearsed spokespriest of the story, and the "normal life" for which you long only rebuffs the uniqueness and diversity of God's design in taking away your ability to walk or even to speak. He says all of this without passion or compassion: He knows his script, and he's doing his job. It's a steely portrait of an impersonal Church, and if I had more space here, I'm sure I could come up with, say, 57 reasons why it needs to change.
Hausner tells her story in Lourdes with the same cool, emotionless manner, and it's splendidly done, a methodical slice of life that never overtly wags a finger. You can decide for yourself to pity the faithful or to sympathize with their forlorn desire, but either way, you'll need to add the emotions yourself.
Testud's modulated work is central to this effect: She gives a delicate, almost candid performance, like she doesn't know we're watching. The other actors are just as low-keyed, and the film's most intense moment may be when a mother -- whose speechless daughter finally moved a little and said her name, but then returned to her vegetative state -- glares bitterly at Christine when she regains her ability to walk.
Lourdes ends with a celebration among the pilgrims, their caretakers and the men who help them during their visit. A romance seems to have blossomed for Christine, and who knows what really happened between those randy young Catholic gals and the men they partied with at night during their stay. ("Are they married?" asks one. "Who cares?" her cohort replies.) Hausner's final shot has Christine looking to the left, which is backwards in film language, and then, things slowly go black. So if you believe in symbolism over magic, interpret away. In French, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., July 30. Harris