Taking the waters and human foibles in southern France
Located among the Pyrenees in Southwest France, Lourdes is a small town of only about 15,000 inhabitants. Ever since the mid-19th century, when women claimed to see visions of a "lady," interpreted to be the Virgin Mary, the town has become a Catholic pilgrimage site. The Basilica of the Rosary was erected in the late 19th century to accommodate the growing faithful who flock to the city, and the spring waters that come from the Grotto of Massabielle are said to have curative properties. The sick, the infirm, and the hopeful come to Lourdes to drink and wash in the waters seeking miraculous cures.
Writer/director Jessica Hausner performs a minor miracle of her own with her disarmingly affecting Lourdes: She's made a movie that explores belief but is unambiguously more concerned with ordinary human beings and their ordinary, everyday desires, dreams, and calamities. Set entirely among one group of pilgrims—a menagerie of the old, the sick, the wheelchair bound—with their Order of Malta female volunteers and male guards, Lourdes's narrative feels like a series of waiting rooms and queues. It opens as the group sits down to eat; subsequent scenes follow the group waiting in line for the grotto, waiting in line for confession, waiting in line to attend mass, assembled for mass, and settling in for bed before the next day's pilgrimage activities. During the brief moments of down time, they talk among themselves—mostly about the other pilgrims, the possibility of cures, how to attain those cures, and who might or might not deserve it more.
The central character here is the sprightly calm Christine (Sylvie Testud). Her multiple sclerosis keeps her confined to a wheelchair, unable to move her arms and legs and dependent on her volunteer Maria (Léa Seydoux) to walk her around, feed her, and prepare her for bed. Christine is a veteran pilgrim—she admits she uses these trips just to get out, as a holiday from her day-to-day—and recognizes one of the guards (Bruno Todeschini) from a similar trip she took to Rome. This casual, non-spiritual conversation irks the severe volunteer Cécil (1990s indie goddess Elina Löwensohn, completely unrecognizable at first), who prefers everybody to remain more focused on why they're there.
Which is a good question: Why are they there? For the ill the reason appears obvious, for the volunteers and guards a tad less so, and for the priests—such as Pater Nigl (Gerhard Liebmann), who is consistently asked for spiritual guidance and for his opinion on and why some people get cured and others don't—it's the job. Lourdes, wisely, isn't trying to say anything at all about Catholicism. Instead, it does something far more ambitious: It's curious about how people think of their religion themselves.
Credit Hausner for her subdued tone and arid dry wit. Sequences of Lourdes bounce from odd to mystical to banal in moments and with little effort, as constant chants of "Hail Marys" create a sacred aural space that smoothly becomes background noise by their omnipresence. And credit, especially, Testud for her impeccably controlled presence. The performance relies entirely on Testud's face, yet she refrains from turning Christine into a one-dimensional symbol as she becomes the nexus of Lourdes' sly humanity. Very early on in the movie, Christine turns her head slightly and establishes eye contact with the camera. It's a shot that you presume will be followed by a reaction shot to whomever she's looking at, but that reverse shot never comes. Instead, it becomes this awkward moment that the movie finds a way to sustain quietly throughout, a visual echo to a recurring dialog exchange between characters. Questions get asked but never satisfactorily answered, leaving you to fill in that void on your own.