It's easy to see why Jessica Hausner's third feature Lourdes, a 2009 excursion to the French holy site by the Austrian filmmaker, would garner awed plaudits among the art house crowd. The style is always reserved, distant and quiet. Few words are spoken for much of the film and Hausner favors an observatory approach that plants the viewer amidst the mystery of perceived miracles. We're respectful spies peeping in on a piety that somehow feels more assumed than actual. It moves slowly as if to project a specific atmosphere of tourism merging with faith over the course of a few days. Room is made for the spiritual but also the grotesque, and easy targets tend to be avoided whenever possible. I may not have particularly enjoyed Lourdes, but I certainly felt at peace with it and was sufficiently intrgued by the picture's opacity in light of its subject matter.
In an exceptional performance, Sylvie Testud stars as a woman named Christine who is suffering from multiple sclerosis. She is unable to walk and gets around in a wheelchair, pushed by others. Apparently no stranger to pilgrimages, Christine joins a group of fellow miracle searchers at the holy site of Lourdes, a place near the Pyrenees where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary was seen in 1858. That particular story was turned into 1943's The Song of Bernadette, winning Jennifer Jones an Oscar in the process. Don't expect more of the same by any means with this film. Christine's journey, from both a spiritual and physical sense, feels insulated, like she's going through the motions politely rather than exhibiting any zealous passion. Hausner makes sure to step back gently, confident in her images. The character of Christine gives little and does so only subtly. It's mostly observation here. She's joined by others in similar predicaments, military men, and the nurses who often seem more interested in going out with the men than taking care of the handicapped.
Throughout, there are cuts to gossipy women, never content or assured about anything, the nonchalant nurses and skeptics galore. For a film that is never overtly against religion or faith, this must be as skeptical as it could possibly be while still retaining a strong sense of mystical, candle-lighting hope. Souvenir shops sell capitalism via some sort of paraphernalia but Hausner only alludes to it rather than exploring. Something that's a little provocative is how the film probably pleases neither the devout Catholics who place their hopes in God's miracles nor the cynical faction who buy into none of it. Lourdes instead seems to observe the inherent flaws in a ritual which undoubtedly has, at a minimum, psychological ramifications that are only matched by similar pilgrimages. Watching is almost like attending what feels like a rite of passage for some, a modern-day Canterbury Tales perhaps.
Finally, after what seems like an arduous exercise in patience on the part of the viewer, something happens in the narrative of Lourdes. It's well into the film and it affects our main character Christine. Hausner provides little secondary consideration for Christine's change. The viewer doesn't know whether it's a miracle, a ruse or a temporary alleviation easily defined by medical realities. These question marks are presented by Hausner as she's almost slipped into the role of deity, at least of the film at hand. What ends up happening is the impassive dissection of religious rituals as a whole. The film is cagey in revealing its true intentions but my reaction was one of mild trouble. It's difficult to understand where everything is heading and what the desired effect is. If we're dealing with pure religious inquires then Lourdes stands proudly as an exploration of the Catholic mythology into miracles. It handles this topic well and absent much guidance.
My criticism ultimately may come across as specialized and subjective because what bothered me about Lourdes was its commitment to not expressing a point of view. With such material as miracle-granting pilgrimage sites, how do you make a film without establishing a stronger insight into a process that can often feel so illogical? Hausner doesn't commit to anything. The picture is reluctant to push through an ideology. It's a topic that's simply too sensitive to just float across absent any strong opinion. What comes through is this sense of reluctant miracles, of nothing ever feeling legitimate either in terms of fairness or sanctimony. But maybe that's just my perspective and not the film's. Maybe it's an interpretative idea that holds greater meaning at the expense of the viewer. Regardless, Hausner's effort is less concerned with teaching than showing, and the depth of what it shows will most likely have to be up to each individual viewer.
Artifical Eye admirably brings Lourdes to Blu-ray. The disc is single-layered and not region-locked.
The picture is presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It exhibits no obvious manipulation or flaws. Detail could perhaps appear stronger but this exists as a nice option for the high definition enthusiasts. No digital noise was detectable and damage is completely absent here. Colors look to be rendered strongly. All in all, some might be wishing for crisper sharpness but there's little to be disappointed over here.
Audio is a special case in that there's not much in the way of dialogue or music to affect the track. What's here is in French DTS-HD 5.1 and hits the listener smoothly and with nary a reservation. Not reference material by any means but hardly a disappointment. It's, more than anything else, good enough for what's at stake. English subtitles are optional and white in color.
Extras are pretty limited considering there's nothing from director Jessica Hausner. Instead, an interview with star Sylvie Testud (14:47) begins by detailing some of her early career points and eventually settling on the film at hand. A trailer (2:00) for Lourdes has also been included.