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Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2009)



Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes is a sly and subtle comedy about religious piety and the nature of miracles. It surprises mostly because the average religious satire tends to be so broad and aggressive. Here, Hausner resists obvious targets, opting to instead present a generally devout world where modest hubris and petty jealousies nonetheless creep into the frame. In Lourdes’ early scenes, it is difficult to suss out if the tone is one of quiet respect or a subtle skewering of hypocrisies. We are introduced to Christine (Sylvie Testud), a young, wheelchair-bound woman who has joined a group trip to the sacred city of Lourdes, less out of any devout stirrings than because it allows her a rare chance to travel in her condition. As she visits the shrines and attends the holy services of the city, she observes a general mood of devotion, although it is a faith that wavers due to personal doubts and skepticism. The pilgrims argue about the details of the last miracle to occur at the site even as they wait in line to be blessed. Midway through the movie, there's a shift, as Christine wakes with the ability to walk, and the definition of her state becomes the group’s central concern.


Throughout Lourdes, Hausner’s camera generally remains at a dispassionate remove, taking in the spectacle of the city and the behaviors of the group. It makes the director’s intent difficult to state definitively, which is appropriate given the subject matter. The best filmmakers often work in mysterious ways. The message here, as far as I can tell, seems to be that we tend to be skeptics, ill-equipped to acknowledge miracles, even when they might be staring us in the face. Everyone here, as much as Christine, who freely admits that she is visiting Lourdes more out of recreation than devotion, seems so caught up in the routine of the pilgrimage (there’s even an award for “the year’s best pilgrim”) that sight of a miracle comes across more as an unpleasant interruption than a revelation. As Hausner presents the miracle, its medical debunking, and the petty jealousy of the other pilgrims, she offers us a beguiling combination of the sacred and profane, seemingly designed to make us question the fluctuating nature of our faith. The mysteries that Lourdes leaves us with are powerful precisely because they shine a light on our cold rationality. An odd, dispassionate religious film that will likely be more powerful for skeptics than true believers, Lourdes manages to most strongly suggest the possibility of grace by so clinically observing its opposite.


Jeremy Heilman