Was it Kierkegaard or Hot Chocolate who spoke the immortal words: ‘I believe in miracles, since you came along … you sexy thing’. Despite the inherent catchiness of that haunting refrain, the people of Earth are divided when it comes to the authenticity of miraculous occurrences. It’s not like there have been any great films on the topic to help convince viewers either way. Movies about miracles range from the awful to the unwatchable (we’re looking at you Phenomenon). Thankfully, that all changes with Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes; it’s a visually-striking, beautifully-realised, emotionally-devastating drama that both salutes and skewers the deeply-religious. It presents us with both the desperation and healing power of faith.
The film stars Sylvie Testud as Christine, a wheelchair-bound woman with severe multiple sclerosis. In a last-ditch effort to reclaim her life, she makes the pilgrimage to Lourdes in the South West of France, where believers from around the globe assemble to pray that God show mercy on their numerous afflictions. The understated yet heartfelt Testud is joined by a pitch-perfect supporting cast, including the childlike Lea Seydoux as her temperamental carer and Elina Lowensohn as a peaceful volunteer internalising some trauma. Christine is remarkably still; almost reluctantly attending mass and having holy baths, as if the mere fact of even believing in a God that would strike her with MS is depressing enough. But then … glory hallelujah! Christine is seemingly selected – from the hundreds of thousands of competing pilgrims – to be the recipient of the Lord’s own good graces, and she slowly reclaims the use of her limbs.
But don’t grab those rosary beads just yet. What follows in the film’s final half is an equally beautiful and brutal assessment of what it means to be a person of faith. If God can give, why does he take away in the first place? Is he – like our priests and parents warned us – watching us at all times (a particularly upsetting revelation for teenage boys around the world if this in fact true)? Does he truly decide which of us deserve pleasure or punishment, like a cheeky 10-year-old with omnipotent cosmic superpowers, or the Coen Brothers? Or maybe he doesn’t exist at all, and this is all just a random cacophony of chaos, not unlike the final half-hour of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Pretty much all of those scenarios are terrifying.
I love this film’s ambiguity. For once a writer/director’s uncertain motive is used not to bamboozle audiences, but to allow viewers to colour in the gaps with their own beliefs. I can imagine atheists picking up the film’s latent barbed sense of humour (and deep, dark tragedy) and adoring the film as an anti-religion polemic. Christians meanwhile could recognise the picture as an affirmation of their dogmas, right down to the extreme kindness and occasional cruelty of their God. Everyone in between … well, this is just a damn good movie and I can only hope their religious beliefs fall in line with that. Thinking back on this movie, and the theological dilemma it plunged me into, and I’m confronted by a number of moments so visually and emotionally striking it practically left me agape in wonder/horror. Lourdes is littered with lingering long shots from DOP Martin Gschlacht (who must have filmed incognito on location to capture the majesty of the environment). Be you catholic, atheist, or miscellaneous, Lourdes will bring you to your knees.