Retrospective Review: Lourdes

Year: 2009
Duration: 96 minutes
Directed by: Jessica Hausner
Written by: Jessica Hausner
Starring: Sylvie Testud, Bruno Todeschini, Lea Seydoux, Elina Lowensohn

By Caz Armstrong

A quiet and mysterious snapshot of the juncture between desperation and hope, Jessica Hausner’s “Lourdes” sneaks its emotional impact under the radar and gives no answers. We are left pondering life’s deep questions. The film is set during a pilgrimage to the French town of Lourdes where, in 1858 a young girl saw a vision of the Virgin Mary and discovered healing spring waters. She reportedly led her town to be healed and now it’s a pilgrimage destination for Catholics who seek healing in the same waters.

A group of pilgrims with various disabilities and ailments are on an organised trip. Amongst them is Christine (Sylvie Testud) who has Multiple Sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. The tour is strictly organised and supported by a variety of aides, with their own romantic jealousies.

When a miracle healing apparently occurs the group must deal with their own scepticism, jealousy and hopes being either dashed or renewed.

Despite being made in 2009 this film has a 1970s feel. The camera takes in long wide shots without dictating too much on the viewer. The score is sparse too, making it observational, not leading us to one conclusion or another, never passing judgement.

Amongst the careful ambiguity the film could be read as a criticism of religion, or at least of the commercialisation of it, or as a celebration of healing in different forms, not just full physical health.

“Jessica Hausner’s “Lourdes” sneaks its emotional impact under the radar and gives no answers. We are left pondering life’s deep questions.”

Some have described this as a black comedy satire and while I did see the subtle humour in some moments I saw it more as an acute observation of desperation. Two women constantly discuss healing miracles within clear earshot of Christine, for whom the prospect of leaving her wheelchair has a deep impact. Only to speculate about dessert a moment later.

Supporting characters are so well drawn that they convey a whole world of deep emotion with one wordless look. They have all been suffering for so long and are desperate for change. They long for a blessing, a healing, a miracle, so much that they are heartbroken over and over again when these things don’t come.

One mother cares for her severely disabled daughter as she watches another person rise from their wheelchair. The look in her eyes is all we need to feel her deep jealousy and sense of injustice. Why would one person be healed but not her daughter? Has she not been devoted to prayer and pilgrimage for years?

Deep questions about religion are conveyed through snippets of conversations. Could a lifetime of devotion, prayer, holy water, blessings and ritual cause god to change their divine plan? If one deeply devoted pilgrim could be suddenly struck down while another faithless person is healed it seems we can’t change anything through prayer the only reason to keep going is hope. But perhaps it’s better to try than do nothing at all, despite having hopes dashed over and over again.

“Hausner manages to create a space where any belief and outlook on life is welcome. The characters are shown in various stages of acceptance around their conditions and, excepting one moment, they are treated with dignity at all times.”

We’re asked to consider whether healing should be entirely physical or whether healing of the soul is just as important, if not more so. It’s easy for a healthy able-bodied person to pose that hypothetical question but for these characters, and for many disabled people of faith it’s a question of real significance.

The final question of whether a miracle did indeed take place is left for us to decide. Is a sudden albeit temporary relief from a long term condition a miracle in itself or does only permanent change “count”? Certainly there are is no charlatan tricks involved. As we know, there are plenty of predators ready to prey on vulnerable people desperately looking for healing.

The theme of disability or long term health condition is a difficult one to approach, especially hand-in-hand with religion and all the conflicting emotions and beliefs that can bring up. But with gentle and ambiguous handling, Hausner manages to create a space where any belief and outlook on life is welcome. The characters are shown in various stages of acceptance around their conditions and, excepting one moment, they are treated with dignity at all times.

Whatever your stance on religious healing there is a deep well of humanity in this deliberately even-handed film.

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