It's a sign of what preoccupies Jessica Hausner's 2009 feature Lourdes, a film much-praised at last year's Venice Film Festival, that I walked out away from it absolutely certain that the main character, a quadriplegic young woman with multiple sclerosis played by the underappreciated Sylvie Testud, had no given name. Now I find that she is in fact called Christine, though if that name was ever spoken aloud in the film, I missed it. Though "Christine" is symbolically laden enough, given the character's function in the story, that I'm happy to be proven wrong.
Unsurprisingly, Lourdes takes place in the southern French municipality of Lourdes, where in 1858 a peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous is said to have witnessed 18 separate visions of a woman (whom Bernadette never specifically identified as the Virgin Mary) in a grotto on the outskirts of the village - the story is retold with admirable earnestness in the winsomely kitschy Darryl F. Zanuck production The Song of Bernadette, from 1943. In the years since, the town - calling it a city would be a gross exaggeration - has become one of the busiest Christian pilgrimage sites in the world, with millions of visitors every year coming to drink and bathe in the water of the grotto, either to cure incurable diseases or simply to experience the spiritual rapture of being in such a miraculous place.
Christine is in Lourdes in the hopes of curing her MS. Kind of. As we learn from overhearing the young woman's conversations with the aides and other patients crowding the streets of the small community, Christine isn't an especially faithful woman - Catholic enough to come to Lourdes, but not Catholic enough that she's coming for Lourdes, if you follow. Being unable to move on her own, she's forced to rely on these religious group trips as her only means of travelling anywhere at all; and as she confesses without a trace of embarrassment, Lourdes is hardly the most exciting place she's been. Rome, for example, was much more culturally interesting.
For all that we spend a great deal of time with Christine, and come to know her rather well indeed, writer-director Hausner (an Austrian making a French-language film on Austrian and German money - God bless European cinema) isn't particularly focused on the young woman at the expense of all else. At times, it hardly seems like Christine - whose name, let's not forget, is barely ever if at all spoken onscreen - is the main character at all. Hausner is at least as interested in the presence of Lourdes itself, for despite Christine's grousing that Rome had more culture, the director finds quite a great deal of interest as she turns her camera upon this corner or that. The film was primarily shot on location, which gives it a heaviness, an historic weight, that dominates the movie much more than anything to do with character or plot does. It would be easy for any filmmaker to look at the most obvious elements of Lourdes, such as its neon-lit Mary paraphernalia shops, and snidely dismiss it as a tchotchke-ridden tourist trap. It is to Hausner's immense credit that she makes no judgments either way: neither ridiculing the at times naïve spirituality for sale, nor indulging in swoony romanticism over the simple faith of these good folk (e.g. The Song of Bernadette).
Lourdes thus ends up being less about Christine than about the very specific milieu around her, which Hausner expresses visually in a series of some of the most well-judged, aggressive wide shots of recent vintage. Starting with the very first shot, an elevated view of the dining room which is about to be swarmed by devout tourists, the film makes excellent use of static shots which compositions move through, rather than shots which are themselves immaculately composed. There's an even more canny trick that the director and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht use to perfection: for most of the film, Christine wears a bright red hat, one of the most distinctive spots of color in the movie. Thus it makes her easy to spot even in a crowd shot. Which leads the filmmakers to deliberately place her in out-of-the-way corners of such shots, never using the compostion to direct our attention to Christine and often directing us away from her. So it is that we have to hunt her out, Where's Waldo? style, and as a result we end up looking over virtually everything in the shot: all the people, all the ancient buildings.
The result of all this is that very few of these images (and by no means is the whole film made up of wide shots, or any damn fool thing like that) express something much like a perspective or viewpoint. The volunteers and visitors of Lourdes drift in and out of our sight, without any emphasis - and this reinforces not only Hausner's desire to look at Lourdes in full, rather than some aspect of Lourdes, while also reiterating her complete lack of editorial comment on what she finds there. She is more interested in examing this particular facet of Catholic faith than in judging its merits.
Perhaps unfortunately and perhaps not, the film ends up being a bit too intellectual for its own good as a result. It comes to pass that Christine regains the use of her limbs, and this is instantly declared a miracle; the film goes out of its way to present a plausible if unlikely medical explanation, and whether it's a miracle or not, we're left in some doubt as to how permanent it will be at the end. If the first part of the movie is all about Lourdes, the second part is very specifically about faith: people being rewarded or, more accurately, not rewarded - Christine is among the least-devout of all the pilgrims, and while her fellows are largely grateful on her behalf, there's also a distinct thread of jealousy and confusion in their conversations, as to why this girl deserved such grace. The audience doesn't know a thing more than they do, and we're largely invited to contemplate the situation as something between a character study and an ethical puzzle: look at Christine, look at her behavior, and draw what conclusions we will. This arch ambiguity is on the one hand very admirable; Hausner has gone out of her way to avoid making any definitive statements about things which are inherently objective. On the other hand, it leaves Lourdes feeling a bit detached from these characters who we've gotten to know rather well (besides Testud, the best-in-show actors are Gilette Barbier as a kindly old woman who takes an interest in Christine, and Léa Seydoux as a bored nurse who'd rather flirt than pay attention to the pilgirms and their needs; but every figure in the movie is sharply etched and equally fascinating). It's brainy almost to the point of alienating: an excellent study in place and character by all means, with some genuinely moving moments, but a study isn't exactly the same thing as a motion picture, no matter how admirable it may be.