Sylvie Testud
In an exclusive interview, the actress talks to Garth Twa about miracles, faith and her acclaimed role in Lourdes.

10 July 2010

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In Lourdes, the new film by director Jessica Hausner, Sylvie Testud stars as Christine, a woman crippled by multiple sclerosis. It is a complex, subtle, slightly wicked film that explores religion, the business of religion, human nature, and faith.

I mentioned to Testud that the film doesn’t seem to have a lot of the dewy-eyed reverence to faith that one would expect from a story about a pilgrimage to one of the hotspots of religiosity where miracles happen, where the divine has an actual, earthly agency, where the immaterial and the material intersect.  Christine (Testud’s character) is far from pious. She takes a very pragmatic approach to the trip: what strategies, what plays, are needed to secure a miracle. Even the priests seem wary, like they’re going through the motions, vaguely embarrassed, not really believing it themselves but having to tow the party line. ‘It’s not really that there’s no faith,’ Testud says, ‘it’s more what do you do with faith, I think. Religion is cultural stuff: parents have a religion and they transmit it. They say, “If you pray, everything will be okay.  You’ll be deserving.  Just be careful and don’t be nasty toward.” But sometimes this idea is undermined.  There are two old women in the film who pray all the time. They are really good catholic women, always doing the good stuff. And so they wish for something strongly, and they expect something from God because they are good servants. But what happens is that the one who’s not praying [her character, Christine], who’s there just because she’s bored, and doesn’t really care, she gets a miracle. You know, this is unfair in a way. It’s like the American way of living…you know, they don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they jog, they do sports all the time, and they think, what?  They won’t die? They won’t get old? It’s like someone who’s ill deserves it because maybe he didn’t eat well. The one who gets mugged in the streets was out at night, right? But sometimes that’s not the way it goes.  You know it’s more…like an ironical smile on life. And religion exacerbates those feelings. It’s where she is good, the director, that she wrote that.  I think.’

I found the two old women that Testud mentioned interesting characters, a Greek chorus of moaning and bitching and gossip. And although they were religiously correct, they were far from spiritual.  Testud thought for a moment. ‘Sometimes I think that faith, when it’s not on display, is pure. But we are poor, human beings…everybody wants to be helped.  Everybody asks for help all the time, with religion.  In all the religions they have that.  People are always demanding. I have a small baby and he’s always asking me for reward.  It’s the same thing. I’m God for him. It’s what we do when we pray.  Oh, I’ll say a nice prayer, then maybe I’ll get, I don’t know, good health for the next ten years, you know? So religion’s not blame; it’s what we do with it.  It’s what we ask for, it’s what we expect. But you can find people who believe really. And I guess that sometimes Jessica has doubts.’

But in the film the mundane trumped the religious. Everyone has their own selfish agenda. They were petty, like the mother of the paralyzed girl who scowled at Christine after she had her miracle.  ‘They know there’s not a lot of miracles. So if you get one then that means I won’t get one.  Because we never see that two hit at the same time, you know what I mean. It means that what you eat is out of my mouth, in a way, you know? But you are right when you talk about the mundane. Even the physical town of Lourdes itself, there is one hill, and then another one, a smaller one, and as the sun goes around different parts get the light.  And people find this significant, that when something is in shadow it’s significant.  But other people put different meaning on it.’ She throws up her hands. ‘It’s never ending.  Humanity, I think, is helpless in a way, you know, when they expect too much.  And that’s what brings people and more people and more people…with everyone praying, not necessarily believing, and maybe not even in faith, but in asking stuff all the time.’

Both Hausner and Testud have described the film as a fairy tale.  Hausner called it a cruel fairy tale, Testud called it an untidy one.  Testud turned to her translator. ‘I said what?’

‘Désordonné,’ the translator offers.

‘Moi dit ca?’ Testud says. ‘Yeah, yeah. Because a fairy tale is a bad situation, and then suddenly, whoosh, something good happens.  It’s always something divine, like a spirit, like chance, like the dragon, whatever. Something stronger than you are is coming, interfering. That’s the case in this film. But then in this film I say it’s… désordonné …’

‘Untidy,’ the translator pops in.

‘It’s that the people want the fairy tale, they want to dream about this miracle. For example in Cinderella, she’s there, washing, asking nobody for anything, just cleaning, then—bam!—she becomes a princess. But in Lourdes they go to the fairy tale—they go to the cinema—to look. They ask for God. But then the fairy tale goes bad. It’s more like in Shrek. At the end she’s the ogress.  I liked that. I thought, yeah, that’s cool. Because there’s no message, nothing, just it’s not the way you were expecting.  And this I like.’

The film is shot entirely in Lourdes, the international clearing house of misery; not only the parade of every disease—mental and spiritual as well as physical—known to man, but also the anguish of last hope, and one can’t help but feel hopes dashed.  What was it like to film there?  How did the other pilgrims react to an actress, mimicking a cripple? Testud shakes her head. ‘They didn’t see us, didn’t notice us, because in fact Lourdes is international. The French noticed me, of course, because they recognize me.  But with the hat and everything [Christine wears a hat pulled down over head whenever she’s out of doors], I was quite undisturbed. And we were really among all the people.  But the thing that was really hard for me was of course that I couldn’t stand up. It would be disrespectful.  And the healthy people, they sometimes help, you know?  When they saw me in the wheelchair, and they came over to help me.  And you cannot say afterwards, oh thank you, but I’m healthy.’ People actually came over to be of service. ‘Yes, there are a lot of devoted people there.  Everybody’s got their parts. There are the healthy people, and the handicapped, and there’s a protocol. But I was spending hours immobile, it was getting on my nerves sometimes.  But I didn’t feel arrogant enough to stand up and let them feel that it was a joke.  Sometimes, when someone was really close to me, I couldn’t even make a move like… [she moves elbow slightly]. You have to move slowly, so that no one sees you do it. But after hours it was really frustrating. I wanted to walk!’

How did the real pilgrims react to the cameras around? ‘In fact they didn’t really notice because, you know, there’s a lot of cameras.   There’s TV, and news, a lot of videos for personal documentaries, so they did not really notice that it was for a film. It has a big media presence.  They sell a lot of DVDs.  There’s a big business. So we were okay. It’s full of contradictions over there.  The Vatican even have their own flights there, there own planes. Vatican Airways.  It’s amazing, no?  I thought it couldn’t be the Vatican. You have seen the Vatican? It’s a building. It’s a state, I mean, but it’s a building. And they have planes that fly direct, Rome-Lourdes.’

Was anything staged, or did the film crew merge into actual rituals and services?  For instance, the mass where Christine is pushed up to the front against her will.  ‘It was all real. I had a walkie hidden in my lap and an earpiece where Jessica could speak to me, directing me.  She would whisper over the walkie to turn left.  Now look right. Okay, that’s good. Now look up… But it was really strange because you know all the people there.’  In the crush at the front of the mass, like in the mosh pit of rock concert?  ‘Yeah, it’s really the mother, the father, the family, they push them there because the big priest is coming with his…I don’t even know in French how it is called…the big round thing…I’d never seen one…’  Like a really big tambourine. ‘Yeah, it’s very big. And the priest is coming, and he’s bestowing blessings. And as he gets closer, passing people, you can feel the tension. Everyone is hoping, I don’t know, like it’s really God coming, or a rock and roll star, I don’t know…everything was a bit mixed in my head. And you can feel the hope. You smell it in a way. And the guy’s coming, and it’s full of handicapped people, it’s one row, two, three, four, crammed up together with the healthy ones are behind.  And it’s a big, big, big basilica—I don’t know how many people can go in, but I think it’s ten thousand. So the guy comes in and blesses. But he goes in front of you, but not in front of you, and the other one…but what can he do? And people should expect that, that he cannot get to everybody’