In order to escape her isolation, wheelchair-bound Christine makes a life changing journey to Lourdes, the iconic site of pilgrimage in the Pyrenees Mountains.
Lourdes opens with a static high angle shot of an empty, coldly impersonal dining room; not exactly a cafeteria, but not much more. We hear the echo of cutlery on empty plates from the kitchen. It is a beat or two before music starts. Ave Maria. It is not clear if this is the music for the opening credits—for our, the audience’s, benefit—or if it is part of the scene, piped in for the faithful. The effect is the same either way. If it is non-diegetic, having already heard the lonely clatter of industrial tourism, the music seems artificial; likewise if it’s cued to coincidence with the lunch specials—do angels sing when there are no paying pilgrims to hear it?—the tone of Lourdes has been set. Cynical, ironic, and only just slightly snide. From the bottom of the frame a man shuffles in on a walker, then, zipping by him, a disabled dwarf rudely careens into the restaurant on a motorized wheelchair. The volunteers from the Order Of Malta next enter from the sides, in red, their uniforms hitting the frame like the paint on a canvas, and priests and nuns begin to merge and coalesce, helping to bring in the afflicted—the tired, the crippled, the huddled masses. It is a shot of exquisite and complex simplicity, a stunning visual symphony—of colour, of movement, or tempo—an audacious formal visual construction akin to the work of Bela Tarr, Renais, or Antonioni. It is exactly what’s best about European cinema, about art cinema. It makes you watch it the way that it wants you to watch it.
Lourdes, of course, is the somewhat shy and defensive town in France, by the Pyrenees, the gravitational center of suffering (well, Christian suffering) where five million visitors a year limp or wheel or slouch in order to cure what ails them. It is where the Virgin Mary appeared to a teenage girl named Bernadette in 1858. It became a place of miracles, where the lame walk, the sick become hale, the lonely somewhat less lonely. It is sort of vaguely guilty now, what with all the decades of science that have come after wee Bernadette; there’s a feeling of sheepishness about trading in something as, well, fantastic as miracles. It’s part of the official dogma, sure, like exorcisms and transubstantiation, but it seems old-fashioned and a little silly now that, well, we can create life in a test tube, or send a man to the moon, or, indeed, have discovered that the body is made up of more than merely four humors. It’s kind of embarrassing and opens the church up to ridicule, like the quick pardon of Gallileo in 1992. Oops. But still, the faithful come. As does the money. The miracle business has become just another turgid bureaucracy like any grey engine run by boards of directors—miracles have to be go through two bureaucracies, a medical and a theological—just like the slow and grey drudge of getting a planning permit. ‘If they don’t last they don’t count’ one nattering tourist comments, ‘They’re very strict.’ But, surely, isn’t being able to walk again the reward, and not the official paperwork of recognition?
Arriving with the latest tour group is Christine (Sylvie Testud), a quadriplegic, struck down with multiple schlerosis. She wants a normal life; she wants the opportunity to be as selfish and competitive and frivolous as anyone else. This is no feel-pity-feel-good, inspirational story of overcoming affliction through faith, where we can sigh about how isn’t it so nice that cripples can be so noble. But these are not noble cripples; they’re petty about their handicaps and competitive in their entitlement. They’re greedy for health, and just as unpleasant as other greedy people are.
Part of the normality that Christine demands is flirting with boys. When Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), the head of the Order of Malta, asks how she is finding Lourdes, Christine—instead of expressing the requisite of platitudes of devotion and gratitude—says with faux-boredom, ‘Oh, it’s fine. A bit touristy’, as though she was a jaded jet-setter complaining about the price of oysters this season in St. Tropez. ‘We met on trip to Rome,’ she coquettishly reminds him, ‘I prefer cultural trips,’ all the while ignoring that fact that she is being fed with a spoon by a peevish volunteer, her own withered hands laying useless in her lap.
Her assigned helper, Maria (Léa Seydoux), isn’t there because of faith—no one in the film, it seems, is—but because she likes volunteering, she says. What she really likes are her fellow volunteers. There is a camaraderie with the helpers, an artificial community forged by being cloistered together, deep yet transient, like the community of student workers at summer camp. The helpers are a mockery in their health. They giggle and gossip, whispering over Christine as though she was an awkward piece of furniture. The delicate power structure and patina of charity is sorely tested when the two women become rivals for Kuno’s attention. Maria—vital and rubicund as a Jersey milk-maid—would seem indomitable in such a match. Not to mention the fact that she’s motile and has ultimate control in the relationship, and can—and does—park Christine off next to wall, abandoning her to drool into her chest while she goes off to the bar. Perhaps in the outside world. But this is Lourdes, and there are advantages for Christine that are peculiar to this place. There is a hierarchy of suffering. In the outside world, Christine is forgotten or avoided; here a quadriplegic is a star.
When Maria starts ignoring Christine—spiteful because she’s losing the battle for Kuno’s attentions—Christine is adopted by a boxy, lonely old woman, Madame Hartl (Gilette Barbier), a gnarly husk of loneliness, without purpose, vacant, unmoored, who takes it upon herself to push Christine around whether she likes it or not. Madame Hartl likes to be depended on, and also likes the reflected halo of attention, so like a groupie she hitches herself to a celebrity. During the high mass Madame Hartl, with Christine as an accessory, she is able to push her way up to the front of the line as the sick and the lame clamber and jostle like teenagers at a Jonas Brothers concert. Christine’s quadriplegia serves her nicely; for Madame Hartl, it’s like an all-access pass.
This is a film deeply concerned with faith; deeply, sardonically, ruthlessly. Faith as manifested in pomposity and arrogance, the only succor it offers are gassy platitudes. The pious, too, have nothing of the divine. It is piety borne of desperation, of self-interest.
The film deftly locates the mundane in the miraculous, and the miraculous in the mundane. ‘I think it’s magnificent when a director finds an aesthetic that reflects this paradox and ambiguity,’ the director, Jessica Hausner, says, praising the work of Carl Dreyer. Hausner herself can easily be called magnificent. With Lourdes, a tourist trap of hesitant exploitation that has to maintain its air of selfless sanctity, Hausner could have found no greater stage for highlighting the banal in the divine. With its church like an airplane hangar, the shops, the traffic jams of wheelchairs and conveyances, the rituals—be it sampling holy waters or queueing past lawns with statues of biblical scenes like arrangements of holy gnomes—it all has a dumb obedience like any other packaged holiday. It could be Lourdes, it could be Butlins in Skegness; a ‘Catholic Disneyland,’ Bruno Todeschini calls it. There’s even an award at the end for Best Pilgrim. The entire film could be succinctly summarized in a single shot: in the background, as two woman prattle, an old woman in a cloth coat kneels in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary with a neon halo, praying, in essence, to a sign outside of a souvenir shop. Hausner quietly, devastatingly, relishes in the mundanity by letting the shots linger too long and capturing the awkward silence and the cackle of fluorescent tubes after testimonials, and by keeping her frame locked down and not tracking characters as they move, as though there’d be little reward in following them. This is very much an earthly plane—pilgrims gossip and begrudge, two old ladies provide a nattering Greek chorus, the poorly disparage the well, and the well bully the poorly. Yes, the disabled are humanized, but it an unpleasant humanity that Hausner shows us.
Christine is pragmatic about miracles. ‘What do I have to do?’ she asks impatiently. ‘Say yes to Him,’ she’s told. ‘But what exactly?’ she pushes, exasperated. None of this religious circumlocution for her. Unfortunately the priests are just functionaries, like used car salesmen with guilty consciences, sitting around telling Jesus jokes as a helper circulates with a tray: ‘Wine?’ she offers, ‘Holy water?’ ‘No thanks,’ the priests say, wearily waving her away. They have nothing to offer Christine but condescension. ‘Learn to accept fate with humility,’ they tell her. Smug prigs. Easy to say when you’re walking around feeding yourself. ‘What is normal?’ they smile patronizingly. ‘You’re unique. We’re all different, none better, none worse.’ Really? It’s not better to be able to feed yourself, go to the store by yourself, have children?
Hausner calls her film ‘a cruel fairy-tale, a daydream, or a nightmare.’ This is revelatory—the arbitrariness of whether it’s a daydream or a nightmare. It’s up to you and basically doesn’t really matter. Not unlike its stance regarding prayer. Lourdes is a dark comedy of manners but does not leave you laughing, or chuckling, but instead knocked breathless like you’ve caught a speeding medicine ball in your solar plexus.
Lourdes is going to be tough to beat as the best film of 2010. It’s a movie that utilizes and plays with the possibilities and conventions of cinema, that challenges your preconceived notions, that actually changes you, changes your brain, like a great piece of literature. You look differently at the world. This isn’t spectacular—there are no explosions or chases through the glowing trees of Pandora—but rather it is small and disconcertingly intimate, which is the size something needs to be to get properly under your skin. It’s the kind of movie that makes me love cinema.