Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 26, 2010 12:54 pm 
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Hallalulah (maybe)!

This film starring the pinched and fearless Sylvie Testud is about a miracle. And so it takes place at Lourdes, in France, the mountainous shrine where thousands seek a cure. Hausner's approach, documentary-like, Bressonian, a restrained social comedy that's also a study of faith, never mocks, but keeps its observant distance from this heavily religious environment where special things are supposed to happen (but mostly don't). Lourdes is a wonderfully dry film about scary things, and it's no surprise, therefore, to learn that the director, who is Austrian but here works in French, learned her trade with Michael Haneke.

Christine (Sylvie Testud) is a paralytic, unable to move arms or legs due to multiple sclerosis. She comes to Lourdes on a kind of religious tour, whose members include the disabled or ill, family members, or mere hangers-on like the two middle-aged women, Frau Huber and Frau Spor (Linde Prelog, Heidi Baratta), who gossip and comment throughout like a snippy Greek chorus. Presumably they are along for a spiritual cure rather than a physical one; the priests who minister to the pilgrims constantly suggest that is what they should all seek. The group is cared for and supervised by women volunteer nurses dressed like nuns, and by uniformed male members of the Knights of Malta, who include Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), a man both kind and handsome. As for Christine, she merely says such trips are the only times she gets out. She remarks to Kuno, who takes an interest in her, that she really prefers the cultural tours to the religious ones like this one.

Many of the scenes in Lourdes are collective, and are filmed amid actual crowds and ceremonies at the shrine, in its grottoes, its buildings, in front of its shops, often from a certain distance. This creates a sense of space that subtly conveys Christine's paralysis -- we're just specks on the wall observing helplessly -- and also gives a sense of a slow, relentless process that's going on all the time. And again there is a sense of helplessness, for the crowds move along hoping wanly for relief and finding only boredom and fatigue, though much of what we see is beautiful, the stately processions and ceremonies, the priests in full regalia, the thousands of candles shimmering in the darkness.

The way Christine is cared for is a slow ritual. She's formally dressed and undressed, her hair combed. She's laid into her bed and the covers pulled up, the mattress jacked up to raise her head. But at one point Maria (Léa Seydoux) the young volunteer taking care of her simply walks off and leaves her and Madame Hartl (Gilette Barbier), an older woman in the tour who shares a bedroom with Christine, begins pushing her around. Later the volunteer in charge of the tour, Cécile (Elina Löwensohn), a woman in extremis herself, as it turns out, rebukes Christine for allowing herself to be brought to the head of a line. You won't get cured by cheating! Gradually dialogue reveals the many doubts and suspicions, as well as jealousies, that swarm around the scene. There have been miracles, but then they didn't last. Someone got up and walked, and later became crippled again. And then it wasn't a "miracle" and was discredited. It was personal, idiosyncratic, inauthentic.

When the miracle comes to Christine it's a surprise even if we might have suspected it. This is thanks to Hausner's skillful pacing and to Testud's deadpan performance, which reveals neither anger nor hope. During confession, she has told the priest she often asks "Why me?" but then when she's cured, or seems to be, others around are quick to ask, "Why her?" She is not a person of faith, though of course she must have hoped.

Hausner's film is off-putting and, though in theory rather droll at times, not very enjoyable. But it is a very detailed look at the ego and backbiting of some religious groups. They seem to bring together the kindest people with the meanest people, and sometimes it is hard to tell which are which. The film's coolness and avoidance of sentimentality (or chortling) makes its everyday examination of faith the more thought-provoking. And though the people at Lourdes are highly flawed, that doesn't mean something wonderful may never happen.

In a thoughtful review The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw has called Lourdes a "superbly subtle, mysterious and brilliantly composed film," and he is right. And it's also occasionally very droll; but that doesn't mean that it is a barrel of laughs.

Seen as part of the San Francisco Film Festival 2010.

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