Lourdes is a cucumber-cool satire which views the poetry and passion of spiritual faith through a prism of rigid bureaucracy and ruthless logic
“I was walking through the woods, thinking about Christ. If he was a carpenter, I wondered what he charged for bookshelves.” This line from Woody Allen’s comic masterpiece Love and Death goes some way to capturing the peculiar essence of Jessica Hausner’s deceptively unassuming Lourdes, a cucumber-cool satire which views the poetry and passion of spiritual faith through a prism of rigid bureaucracy and ruthless logic.
The ever-sublime Sylvie Testud plays the devoutly religious paraplegic Christine, a timid young woman whose unshakeable belief in the healing powers of the Lord has led her to the Pyrenees hamlet of Lourdes where she hopes once and for all to rise from her wheelchair and live anew. Under the strict supervision of head nun Cécile (beautifully played by Hal Hartley alumnus Elina Löwensohn) Christine’s time in this antiquated, Disneyfied holy land sees her dutifully wheeled about to various meals and ceremonies while being idly assured that it’s very possible her faith will be rewarded by a visit from Him. And if that doesn’t happen, there’s always the chance of being awarded the special prize of Best Pilgrim at the big send off party. Then… well, the less said about ‘then’ the better. Let’s just say that the film takes a casual and deftly handled swerve into more metaphysically audacious climes.
Hausner’s use of distanced, geometric framing, glacial pacing and monosyllabic dialogue delivery gives the initial feeling that Lourdes is another hokey and ironic Jarmusch/Kaurismäki knock-off. It also offers ample early opportunity for woolly liberal naysayers to snort at a cavalcade of religious nut jobs who’re supremely blind to the pragmatic (if cold) reasoning of agnosticism.
Those feelings are quickly proved false, as it becomes apparent that Lourdes is a richer and more ambiguous piece of work, an ‘open film’, almost, in the Haneke vein. Props to Hausner for opting never to reveal her hand, forcing you to look beyond what is happening to her characters and instead inspect the mixed-up world in which it’s all happening. She casts modern religiosity as a combination of human self-interest and divine indifference, and while this may sound like a chilly and coolly intellectual reduction of what many people cherish as a life-affirming creed, that’s because it damn well is. So deal with it.
Hausner is something of an unknown quantity in British arthouses.
Tonally, it’s a tough film to get your noggin around.
A truly nourishing and carefully modulated piece of work for believers and sceptics alike.