BY DESIGN | Lourdes

Lourdes is a microcosmic world somewhere between a spa and a Christian theme park. By Louis Rogers

 

Early on in Lourdes, a distracted pilgrim nearly walks into another, who is knelt in prayer at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary. It’s a moment of gentle comedy that’s typical of the film, neither mocking the pilgrims nor ignoring the steady absurdity of their situation. It also captures a forgivable mistake: Lourdes the place and Lourdes the film are full of statues, at least as many as there are human bodies. Figures, stony and mortal, mirror one another and are confused in scenery brilliantly designed to capture the equivocal stillness of Lourdes, which soothes its visitors but is always uncannily alive with the promise – or hope – of sudden, miraculous movement.

In Jessica Hausner’s film, Lourdes is a microcosmic world somewhere between a spa and a Christian theme park. The bedroom that Christine, a visitor with multiple sclerosis, shares with a taciturn companion is all smooth plains of pastel blue, which evoke both the Virgin Mary’s shroud and the placid colour schemes of sanitation and public health. Holy ecstasy and institutional rigour are indistinguishable. The room is pitched perfectly between monastic asceticism and the comforts of high-end travel: a simple single bed – but could that be Memory Foam? – and a solitary, tasteful print on the wall. 

What distinguishes the interiors of Christine’s hotel most from your standard wellness resort are the statues of Mary, of all sizes, everywhere. (Scenes set around the town of Lourdes, in which every other building is a teeming gift shop, confirm they aren’t hard to come by.) Rendered in cool whites and blues, some with tasteful neon halos, the statues’ implacable presence fluctuates between calming, foreboding and even derisive. They loom in the backgrounds and foregrounds of shots crowded with people of varied mobility who are praying, or simply waiting, for divine intervention. 

Production design establishes the simultaneously institutional and reverential atmosphere that pervades Lourdes. When its big twist comes, it’s against all this balmy stillness. The bigger, stranger twist is how the serene setting is able to absorb the event unperturbed, leaving hardly a ripple on its surface.

 

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