If you know anything about Christianity then the title of Lourdes gives a good bit of information. Deserving comparisons to Dreyer’s Ordet (itself clearly a direct inspiration for Reygadas’ Silent Light), Lourdes follows the plight of Christine (Sylvie Testud) – paralyzed from the waist down on a tour to the site of miracles, Lourdes. Christine’s nurse is Maria (Lea Seydoux), a young, pretty, and flirtatious woman. A host of other characters round out the small cast, including an older, taciturn woman who takes over as Christine’s nurse when Maria is away flirting with the resident soldier, a few woman who function as Greek chorus, and a mother who desperately yearns for a miracle for her handicapped daughter.
There are several interesting things plot-wise about Lourdes. For one, the two leads, Christine and Maria, are not particularly devout. Christine seems to be on her pilgrimage as much to stave off boredom as to worship. Maria is young and naive, and spends much of the film chasing and pining after the soldier Kuno (Bruno Todeschini).
Further, much of the film’s core seems to be about jealousy and spite. SPOILER (but probably an obvious one) here: towards the end, Christine is miraculously cured. She gets out of bed and walks to the bathroom. She is taken to doctors who confirm the miracle. She’s able-bodied and she even kisses Kuno. While many express wonder about her sudden turnaround she is treated as more of an object of suspicion than anything else. The Greek chorus women secretly wonder ‘why her’ and not someone else and speculate on how long it will last. Maria watches jealously as Christine goes off with Kuno. Even Christine’s older caretaker hurries pathetically after her like a wounded puppy when Christine and Kuno separate themselves from the group. The head nurse lectures Christine and Maria early-on for pushing to the front of the line at a mass.
These spites are small, but they amount to much in the face of what is known as such a holy place. Christine’s cure seems arbitrary. She’s nice. She doesn’t complain. But there’s nothing outstanding about her that indicates she should be the one. This certainly isn’t a film about back-stabbing, but it’s also not a film about the power of belief. I think it could rather easily be read as a societal commentary. There are repercussions at play: the lecturing head nurse later falls, her wig revealing a frighteningly bald scalp, and is carted off on a stretcher, for example. This moment in particular is a great summation of the film: nothing is as it seems (wig), holiness is arbitrary (she is, on the surface, one of the most devout), and no one can answer for the random events that make up life.
Third-time director Jessica Hausner has a style that at first seems to match the content here. Her camera is very wide and static, but she does often zoom. We don’t see zooms too often in contemporary cinema anymore, particularly not in a film that is styled in such a quiet way. It’s an odd effect. Consider the opening shot: Hausner frames an overhead wide-shot of the cafeteria. Nurses and miracle-seekers gradually walk and wheel in. Hausner’s camera slowly zooms in until she frames the head nurse (notably not the main character – it’s an unexpected introduction in this sense) in a medium-wide. Why the zoom and not the dolly? Or the edit? For one, as you may know, a zoom has the effect of flattening the space. For example, if you are standing twenty feet from a wall and I dolly (move the entire camera) towards you, when I finish the camera move there will still be a significant amount of space visible between you and the wall. However, if I start the camera in the exact same space and instead zoom towards you (moving only the mechanism(s) in the lens), when I finish the camera move the wall will appear to be closer to you. It will feel less three-dimensional. In this sense, Hausner, though her zooms are relatively infrequent, closes the space in. Everything is flatter and, in effect, smaller. She makes this place of miracles more claustrophobic and less open – it’s a very un-flattering effect for a place that seems to have so much breadth and history and is as ironic as the narrative itself.
Further, the zoom and the static wides have the effect of not looking at the space in wonderment and awe. They’re plain and ordinary. The camera refuses to worship.
One last comment here about the ending. Christine has been cured. It’s the last day of the pilgrimage and there’s a dance. Maria gets onstage and sings. She owns this scene in her carefree mannerisms. It’s like she’s happy that the pilgrimage is over and that she can now pursue her own life. Christine dances with Kuno and at one point falls. It’s a heart-stopping moment. Has she suddenly “lost” her cure? She slowly stands, on her own power, and retreats to the wall where she watches the action. She’s still standing.
The camera trains on Christine and the elderly woman who has been watching her in Maria’ absence. It’s a long shot in the sense of both distance and duration. Very slowly Christine sits down in her wheel-chair. There’s no discussion of it. No big deal is made. She simply sits with the woman behind her so that they again appear to be in position of cared-for and caregiver. And then the film ends.
The ending is, obviously, rather open-ended. Is she paralyzed again? Did she just sit because she’s tired? Why if the former? Did she somehow not deserve her “gift”? It’s all rather mysterious, and again, Hausner’s camera gives no clues. By keeping static it remains as uninflected on the moment as possible. No dramatic dolly in, no closing-shot crane away. It’s ‘this is what happens now, and now you figure out what happened and what happens next.’