Tuesday, 6 April 2010

'Lourdes' review: My Sweet Lourdes

‘Lourdes’ is a French film (by Austrian director Jessica Hausner) which follows Christine (Sylvie Testud, also seen in the Oscar-winning ‘La Vie en Rose’ in 2007), a woman paralysed from the neck down, as she goes on a pilgrimage to the iconic Catholic site named in the title. There is the sense in ‘Lourdes’ that Christine is possibly not drawn to the journey by her Catholicism, but by the fact that joining up with the group of nuns (who take parties of wheelchair bound people on this pilgrimage) is enabling her to see more of the world: “It is difficult to travel in a wheelchair” Christine tellingly admits early on. But Christine is not cynical or manipulative and has the best intensions. She is not unmoved by Catholic doctrine either, as she clings to the hope that a divine miracle will help her to walk again, a hope encouraged in dreams of the Virgin Mary.

For someone as irreligious as I, the films greatest pleasures are found in its representation of the tacky and crassly commercial side of Catholicism as an organisation, with Mary figurines readily on sale at Holy sites and gaudy neon halo’s adorning many of the Mary statues seen in the film. Similarly, the pilgrims take their group photo on a bench designed exactly for such a purpose outside one religious monument and Christine herself refers to ‘Lourdes’ as “too touristy” and finds it lacking in culture. Amusingly the music on the soundtrack seems to imply commerciality even to the films version of the Ava Maria, which sounds cheesy and synthesized. The film even culminates at a Catholic disco.

But to say that the film is itself anti-Catholic would be unfair and the things I have seen as evidence of commerciality and opportunism could be seen differently by those coming to the film with a different outlook. As the (usually still) camera lingers on scenes of the pilgrims eating dinner, it is up to the viewer to decide where to look and what to make of what is happening during a number of terrifically detailed scenes. It can also be said that the pilgrims themselves seem sincere, as do the majority of the nuns and priests depicted (with the possible exception of a young nun who seems to view the pilgrimage as a Catholic holiday camp and an alternative to summer skiing). Most telling of all is the fact that the film doesn’t do anything to discourage the idea that divine miracles can and do happen. This is another detail which helps to keep the film pleasantly ambiguous and stops it from seeming at all polemical.

Instead of asking the question “do miracles happen?” the film looks at who they may happen to and is mostly concerned with the reactions of people to potential miracles. Perhaps (the film posits) miracles may happen to the nicest people, not necessarily the most pious, and the film would seem to suggest that the two are not necessarily linked. Christine is never mean to anyone, even though she would have cause: she is frequently patronised for being in her condition and sometimes forgotten or ignored by the nun assigned to care for her. She is only really interested in making the best of things. By contrast some of her more pious co-pilgrims seem to gossip and view the receipt of a miracle as some sort of competitive sport.

To say that ‘Lourdes’ is a slow moving film of subtle observations and small moments would be an understatement, as to many it would probably fit the description that “nothing happens”. There is a story here, but it is slight (and I have done my level best not to spoil it here). It is in the interactions of the characters and specifically their treatment of Christine that the film is strongest. It is odd perhaps that a film that accepts the possibility of miracles could be so matter of fact and naturalistic, but maybe that is the point: in a world where miracles exist (and are indeed scrutinized and recorded by the Church) are miracles simply as banal as everything else?

'Lourdes' is playing in a select number of screens across the UK and can be seen at the Duke of York's in Brighton until Thursday. It is rated a 'U' by the BBFC.

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