Sunday, February 06, 2011

#9 of 2010: Lourdes

There are plenty of reasons why so many recent movies made about religion are studies in zealous extremism or, as we witnessed in the just-wrapped Sundance Film Festival, narratives about the ambivalent or downright scary pull of charismatic believers, marginal practices, creepy cults. Lourdes, despite resolutely avoiding the track of vilifying faith, may seem in its opening shot or in a roughly synopsized premise to be headed along the equally easy road of facetious send-up. Our first impression, from a camera somewhere in the high rafters of a dubious, marble-floored hotel restaurant, is of timid, hunched, variously incapacitated pilgrims gradually entering and taking their seats, before the head nun/chaperone runs dispassionately through the group itinerary for their visit to Lourdes, the legendary healing site. As the shot fills with people and the camera zooms closer, the kitschiest accoutrements of this trip (an end-of-week prize for Best Pilgrim!) stand in uncertain relation to the soft, sympathetic sincerity with which this nun, uncannily played by Elina Löwensohn, promises to her temporary wards a respite from their acute loneliness. The mutedness of the sound design, plus writer-director Jessica Hausner's gift for capturing the hush and austerity even in commercialized spaces, lend the scene an unexpected dignity; the Crayola shades of the costumes and the architectural pastiche of banquet hall and ski chalet encourage winking skepticism. The camera's refusal to cut, like the unfussy inscrutability of the performers, refuses to break this inchoate first impression into more revealing tonal clues. Nothing contextualizes the overlaid rendition of "Ave Maria," which will reprise later in the film, as a devout musical invocation or as a smirk at the commodified canning of spiritual expression. Is this pilgrimage for real or not, on the whole or in parts? And if so, which parts?

The withholding of judgment persists across Lourdes, which is comic, haunting, sweet, pious, unsettling, agnostic, and wholly deadpan at various moments. The scene structures, story arc, and style are so unusual that they ironically emit a strong sense of directorial point of view even as they inventively resist any sense of pinpointable editorial intervention. Our focal character, played by the charming, heroically opaque Sylvie Testud, is a young, wheelchair-bound woman who, early on, comments on the plastic, "touristy" aspects of this trip to Lourdes, where the minuscule possibility of a miracle is sold like a visit to Epcot Center, a Carnival Cruise, a steady engine for gift-shop apparel: I Prayed To Be Able To Walk, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt. But Testud's Christine makes this comment gently, in docile appreciation of the chance to get out, and the framing of spaces as well as ensuing events conspire to imply that something miraculous is happening, almost happens, or at least potentially could happen to Christine while at Lourdes. And why Christine? Löwensohn's chaperone, whether outraged at her unrewarded devotion or guilty about a private waver in her faith, seems incensed that Christine, not she, is the object of divine contact. The indolent, boy-crazy escort played by Léa Seydoux and the more intensely afflicted visitor played by Orsolya Tóth alternately stress the wry vulgarity and the humbling stakes of this place, this spell, whether of time or of magic.

Hausner, working in brilliantly cool cahoots with up-and-coming cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, keeps finding new locations, angles, and movements for her camera that simultaneously imply the very apex of capitalist banalization and the lurking potential of Spirit, of something ineffable. Embracing neither belief nor renunciation, Lourdes produces astonishing, dispassionate fusions of the two and an incredible range of gradations between them. What does it mean, either as the disabled pilgrim or the chaperoning nun, to visit Lourdes and imagine, much less expect, a touch from God's finger? What does it mean to come to Lourdes and not entertain that possibility? Is it holy or ridiculous, a joke or Very Much The Point, that the Spirit insinuates itself not in objects or intervals of sublime ecstasy but on drab day-trips, in restless queues, between the trapezoidal cafeteria trays? What finally happens in Lourdes and the questions or answers that the movie thereby prompts are generously, uncynically open to interpretation. But this is not a foggy, uncommitted exercise in run-of-the-mill ambiguity, nor does it turn on a brazen sensationalizing of body, society, and spirituality in the manner of Breaking the Waves. The exquisite, oblique manipulation of images, sounds, rhythms, and performance by which Lourdes evolves from scene to scene and by which it arrives at its finale offer its own grounds for an ardent belief in cinema—if not as a higher power then at least as a profound one.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Colin Low said...

I love that, for you, a 740-word blog post is a "short piece". Great write-up as usual, pinpointing the sense in which Lourdes evokes a hushed, austere world of questions and non-judgement. At the same time, I like that your write-up manages to explain why the movie's inscrutability appeals to you, even for those who don't like that in their movies (I am increasingly acquiring the taste for it).

Editorial note: the clause "... the questions or answers that the movie thereby prompts are generously, uncynically left open to question" might be better served without that last "to question".

2:00 PM, February 06, 2011  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks, Colin, for the response and for the welcome editorial intervention. "Short piece" for me usually translates to "quickly dashed-off piece," so I appreciate you catching me in my hasty infelicities!

2:06 PM, February 06, 2011  

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