Lourdes, the town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is one of the major locations with special significance to the Catholic church. Famous for the appearances of the Virgin Mary to fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, which were themselves dramatised in The Song of Bernadette ( a novel by Franz Werfel, which became a 1943 film which gained Jennifer Jones an Oscar in the title role), Lourdes has become a major pilgrimage centre where the sick and disabled come in the hope of a cure. The Catholic Church has recognised sixty-seven healings to date which they consider inexplicable in any other terms but the miraculous. Bernadette died in 1879 at the age of thirty-five, and was canonised in 1933.
The film centres on Christine (Sylvie Testud), a young woman almost entirely paralysed and wheelchair-bound due to multiple sclerosis. She joins the many thousands of pilgrims in the hope of a cure. Her helper is Maria (Léa Seydoux), a young volunteer nun. In charge is Cécile (Elina Löwensohn), a business-like and sometimes brusque nun who, as it turns out, is probably in need of as much help as her charges.
Lourdes, Austrian director Jessica Hausner's third feature, is neutral on the subject of faith, neither propounding nor denigrating it. She takes an almost documentary approach, with a camera style that's on the whole self-effacing if deceptively so. For an example, look how elaborately choreographed the opening shot, over which the opening credits play, all captured in a simple overhead angle and a slow zoom-in.
Over time we come to know Christine, the nuns and volunteers, and the members of the party. While undoubtedly many of them have faith, they also have their own motives. Maria decided to volunteer when she could just have easily gone skiing that year, and she is not the only one who has an eye for the handsome Kuno (Bruno Todeschini). Hausner also gets in a few sly digs at the whole tourist industry – and the tourist tat – that has sprung up around the shrine in the century and a half since St Bernadette's visions.
God does indeed act in mysterious ways, not necessarily choosing the most worthy recipient of His blessings. When a miracle seemingly does happen, Hausner leaves it open if that is in fact what it is – or is it just simply a remission, which won't last? This remains ambiguous to the end of the film.
The performances are very strong, with Sylvie Testud (herself able-bodied) physically convincing as a person with severe MS and with a sufficiently sardonic edge to her characterisation to prevent things becoming too saccharine. I haven't seen Elina Löwensohn since her work for Hal Hartley, or as the title role in Nadja back in 1994, and it's a mark of her versatility that, after playing a porn star or a vampire, she's entirely convincing as a nun.
Hausner and her DP Martin Gschlacht maintain a cool colour temperature, pale blues, greys and whites, with touches of red (such as the nuns' habits) standing out and skin tones adding warmth. This is the second film I've reviewed on the trot which was shot in HD at 4K resolution on the Red One, and it shows how versatile that camera has become in a short time: there's a long way between the restrained palette of Lourdes to the garish orange hues of Life During Wartime. I thought this film had been shot in 35mm until I learned otherwise in the end credits.
Lourdes is measured in its pace, but that's entirely in keeping with its subject matter. As the U certificate indicates, it's a film that doesn't need to raise its voice to have an impact, and is recommended to religious and non-religious persons alike.
Lourdes is released by Artificial Eye on a dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions. (There is also a Blu-ray edition.)
The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. As I say above, Lourdes was shot in high-def. Some of the longer shots look a little soft, but that may well be intentional. Meanwhile, colours are strong and blacks solid, and shadow detail excellent.
There are two soundtracks available in the original French, in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). The surrounds are used mainly for ambience – you can hear the echo in the empty dining hall in the opening shot before people arrive. The song over the end credits brings the soundstage to more life, with the subwoofer filling in the bass end. English subtitles are optional.
The main extra is an interview with Sylvie Testud (14:11). She speaks in English, with occasional help from an interpreter, to an offscreen interviewer who we hear once, namely Ian Haydn Smith. Testud begins by discussing how her career began, originally in German films. Lourdes for her was the sort of project she was looking for, where she wasn't playing a nun or a saint, but not attacking religion either, as that would be too easy to do. It was also a bonus working with a female director. There are no subtitles for this item, which is presented in 4:3.
The only other extras are the theatrical trailer, which runs 1:55. and is in the ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced.