IN THE CRITIC’S CHAIR | Lourdes

 

Shot on location in Lourdes, Jessica Hausner’s film by the same title revolves around a woman with multiple sclerosis, who comes to the French town known for its alleged powers of healing and transcendence. Free from an overt critique of faith, the film is a curious exploration of the different forms of belief and the ways in which they become manifest. Thoughtfully composed and perfectly controlled, the Austrian director also brings darkly comic elements to the anticipation of enlightenment, a human characteristic that goes beyond the famous grottos of Lourdes.

 

Taking place in Lourdes – a town infused with stories of miracles and spiritual healing – it is fitting that Hausner’s film was received as a work charged with an otherworldly significance, as noted by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian:

as the action of this outstanding movie proceeds, you get the eerie feeling that everything on screen has been invisibly deluged with something very important.


At risk of this metaphysical element becoming too abstracted, Nicholas Rapold praised the earthly, human “stuff” that makes up Lourdes’ cinematographic fabric in a short take for Film Comment:

Permitted to shoot at Lourdes, she emphasizes receiving lines and prep rooms, human-scale needs and desires, over grand architecture or heavenly shafts of light. Buffered by a carefully maintained tone, Lourdes plugs divine mystery into the chatter of earthbound concerns. 


This human element was also highlighted by Manohla Dargis, writing in the New York Times, who suggested Hausner’s precise framing is what creates the film’s coherent, human-centred narrative:

Ms. Hausner ... is more interested in the forms that faith takes, in its individual and collective ebbing and flowing. The mesmerizing opening image — a steadily framed and angled overhead shot of a cafeteria — immediately sets her parameters. As the camera holds on the image, men and women, some in wheelchairs, begin to stream in, as if carried along by some unseen force. They’re merely being seated for a meal, but the elevated angle of the shot and the way everyone drifts in together, as if each were part of a single organism, creates a sense of a collective purpose, a unified calling. 


Her precision, as noted by AV Club, also triggers unexpected effects:

Directing with an icy exactitude ... Hausner reveals so little of her hand pre-miracle that the film seems unnecessarily vague, even mechanical. But that same lack of emphasis pays off in the second half, when Testud’s extraordinary change of condition is looked upon with curiosity and skepticism rather than transcendence. 


Always with its eponymous location in mind, the film reveals both Lourdes’ spiritual gravity and tourist frenzy, according to Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant:

Juxtaposed with gloriously pellucid location photography (the 19th-century basilicas and grottos glint with muscular spirituality), Hausner’s view of the sanctuary nimbly crosses numinous beatification with infantile sexuality.

 

Lourdes is available to stream as part of TANK’s season Beyond Varda. Subscribe for just £3 a month for access to 40+ films throughout the year.