An Act of Faith: Interview with Lourdes director Jessica Hausner
Lourdes opens with a shot of an empty dining hall. Gradually people come into the room and take their places, many are in wheelchairs and others, the volunteers and helpers, are in uniform. This group has come together in the French town of Lourdes where even today, in a world where scepticism and the logic of science reigns, thousands of people go in the hope of experiencing a miracle. It is this intense longing that sits at the heart of Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s extraordinary new film. As she explains: “Right from the beginning I was really looking for the metaphor. What does it mean to experience a miracle? What is the miracle standing for, not that I wanted to explore this strange phenomenon but I was interested in why people hope for a miracle and what it means for them? I had the impression that it is something childish, a bit like a fairytale, to hope that when you are paralysed that by a miracle you are going to be healed.”
Yet Lourdes is anything but a fairytale. As we wait and watch for signs of a miracle, we are introduced to the people who make up the group, they recount rumours they have heard – it happened for one person in the baths, they say. Others speak of those who were healed and then relapsed. In their heads the group try to make sense of the nonsensical. When what appears to be a healing does occur the chatter doesn’t subside; this is no Cinderella story and it is not necessarily the person with the most faith or the one deemed the most worthy who experiences the miracle. As Hausner comments, this is a film about “the kind of injustice that rules within society.”
Lourdes is a film that at times feels intensely cruel: the story is told in a detached style reminiscent of the bleak and unflinching world of Michael Haneke. Hausner’s observations are remarkably astute and throw up a myriad of questions surrounding faith and religion and more generally the oppressiveness of the human condition. Through this Hausner points to something far more universal behind the phenomenon of miracles and the strange environment of Lourdes, what she calls “the very human longing for happiness and fulfilment.”
One of the most distinctive aspects of the film is its complete lack of judgement – towards both the characters and the topic of religion. “I didn’t want to make either a Catholic film or a film that says it’s all bullshit.” Hausner says, “I wanted to be above that because I think taking sides would have been too easy, too one dimensional.” As a result both sceptics and devotees have welcomed the feature and it won the FIPRESCI prize in Venice as well as Christian film awards.
Critics have also applauded the remarkably restrained performance by Sylvie Testud, who plays the central character Christine, who is paralysed from the neck down. Testud spent long periods of time in character to give authenticity to the role. “During the shooting it was often very tough for her and very exhausting," says the director. "We practiced how in the wheelchair the shoulders go down and the hands and legs are cramped. It was very tense for her to be seated like that all the time and that of course [gave rise to] an emotional tension too.”
Testud’s commitment to the role and Hausner’s intelligent observation of the conflicts and emotions of the group combine to create one of the most distinctive and confident films of recent months. The absence of any obtuse moralising also gives the film a refreshing openness which raises more questions than it attempts to answer, allowing audiences to explore the themes for themselves.