Review by Mike D’Angelo
Posted on 30 September 2009
Source Palisades Tartan 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
One of the hardest things to do as a film critic is frankly admit that you simply did not “get” a particular movie. As in totally failed to understand it. Watched helplessly as it whizzed right over your head. Are now helpless to do much more than repeat your confusion again and again in what you hope is at least a tolerably clever way. I seriously considered not reviewing Lourdes, because I knew that any attempt would involve far more flailing than analysis. At the same time, however, this movie is so clearly accomplished and consistently intriguing that I want to call it to your attention, perhaps even quasi-recommend it. The curious and adventurous reader shouldn’t be penalized just because I can’t (yet) work out what writer-director Jessica Hausner means for us to take away from her unusual disquisition on the nature of miracles.
Here’s what I can tell you for sure. Lourdes stars Sylvie Testud - for my money, one of the greatest film actors in the world right now - as Christine, a young woman afflicted with what appears to be multiple sclerosis. In any case, she’s paralyzed from the neck down, and has joined a church group on a pilgrimage to Christianity’s most famous shrine, though she openly admits that she isn’t religious and just takes advantage of any opportunity she can find to travel, given her disability. Which makes the devout and the professionally spiritual alike somewhat flummoxed when Christine awakens in the middle of the night, not long after her visit to the Grotto, to find that she can suddenly move her limbs, and even walk. The local doctor suggests that it’s only a temporary medical phenomenon, and hence not a miracle, but that doesn’t stop other pilgrims from asking, with varying degrees of bitterness: Why her?
Part of the problem here, to be honest, is that I haven’t seen any of Hausner’s other films, which include the Cannes alumni Lovely Rita and Hotel. (Lourdes premiered at Venice, where it won the FIPRESCI critics’ prize.) And Lourdes itself is so deliberately ambiguous, so intentionally devoid of anything resembling an editorial message, that it’s nearly impossible to evaluate in a vacuum. Testud, in a masterful performance, provides no clues, making Christine sweetly opaque from start to finish; she seems wholly at peace with her affliction before the miracle (if miracle it is), and entirely sanguine after it happens, absent a jot of either wonder or smugness. Even the single note of characterization we’re given—that she’s come to Lourdes for the travel and the company, not out of any sincere religious belief—doesn’t especially define her. There’s just no way to know what she’s thinking. She is a vessel.
But the movie’s God, of course, is Hausner, and I can’t for the life of me work out what she’s trying to convey. Is she ridiculing the very notion of Lourdes as a sort of pious tourist trap? Is she suggesting that divine grace doesn’t necessarily seek out those most deserving of it—or that Christine is in fact more deserving of it, by virtue of her beatific indifference? Is she interested less in Christine than in the envy and consternation her abrupt recovery inspires in others? Any of those ideas (or all of them) might make a fascinating film, but Hausner seems reluctant to commit herself, content instead to toss out vague hints and let the viewer do all the heavy lifting. I found the experience more maddening than anything else, but if you like ‘em formally cool and thematically hazy, give it a look. And then, please, tell me what it’s about.
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