Since her feature film debut in 1999, Austrian director and screenwriter Jessica Hausner has carved a place for herself among the best of today’s filmmakers through her clear-headed examinations of human foibles. Shot on location, Lourdes focuses on pilgrims to the French site where Saint Bernadette Soubirous saw the Immaculate Conception and scratched at the ground in a natural grotto to bring forth water said to heal the sick and injured.
To the magnificent edifices and well-ordered routines designed to curry favor with the Virgin Mary comes a tour group sponsored by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a service organization. The opening shot of a dining room that Order volunteers, able-bodied “civilians,” and disabled pilgrims slowly fill is captured from a high camera angle, as though a divine presence were appraising this latest group of petitioners.
Our attention is drawn to one young woman, Christine (Sylvie Testud), who has lost the use of her limbs to multiple sclerosis. Her volunteer caregiver, a pretty redhead named Maria (Léa Seydoux), is more interested in the male volunteers than caring for Christine. Still, Christine is unfailingly pleasant to her and everyone else, rewarding callousness with a rueful smile that is part of the armor she must wear when facing a world in which she is relatively helpless, quite dependent, and almost completely invisible.
Christine has been on other pilgrimages, mainly because it’s the only way someone in a wheelchair can take a vacation without much trouble. She met Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), a volunteer in the Order, on another tour and nurses a crush on him. Christine notices a sly flirtation between Kuno and Maria, and her competitive spirit asserts itself. When Christine is wheeled through the grotto, she lifts her hand to touch the rock wall; that evening, she rises from bed, goes into the bathroom, and combs her hair.
Is it a miracle? Hausner doesn’t let God off the hook. One shot I like is of Christine sitting in a chapel. Hausner shoots her through a sliver between enormous pillars, making it look like God could just as easily crush her as cure her. The characters and the real-life pilgrims who populate Lourdes each deserve a miracle. I hope they get one.