★★ / ★★★★
Christine (Sylvie Testud) is a woman inflicted with multiple sclerosis, leaving her unable to move her arms and legs. Confined to a wheelchair, she joins a pilgrimage to Lourdes, located along the border of France and Spain, a holy place where miracles are said to happen. When she gets there, however, she overhears a conversation that the miracles are not officially acknowledged by the church because they are temporary. Despite this, Christine clings onto the hope that she will be the chosen one.
“Lourdes,” written and directed by Jessica Hausner, is a bore in the beginning, a curiosity in the middle, and thoroughly fascinating toward the end. Because of the first third that feels like a chore to sit through, it is of great concern that many will walk away before the punchline. It is a shame because the material has something interesting to say about faith through people’s belief in miracles, whether they are legitimate occurrences untethered to the limitations of science, a combination of self-fulfilling prophecies and luck, or events that can be explained by science if believers are more open to critical thinking.
The set-up bored me. We are subjected to many disconnected scenes of holy places, like a grotto, blessings, and prayers. It felt like I was at church. Instead of being pulled into the picture, I thought about things that I needed to get done the next day. It does not help that the camera is always static. During conversations, it is often a few feet from the characters who are speaking and listening so it is a challenge to savor the little emotions and other subtleties being transmitted.
Perhaps the point is that the writer-director wishes to allow us a little bit into experiencing Christine’s disability. Since she has limited movement, the camera adopts to that. But the way I saw it was just because she is not as free to move physically, does not mean she is bored by what is happening around her. On the contrary, she is eager and excited to be there because she looks forward to possibly being healed. There is a lack of spark for about thirty-five minutes and to wonder whether the screenplay is going anywhere is justified.
The picture picks up a little when our protagonist expresses her frustration and anger for being paralyzed to a priest. It is an interesting scene because it gives us a chance to understand what she thinks about her disability, those who she considers “normal,” and what it would mean to her, personally, if she gets another chance to walk without someone pushing her wheelchair and breathing behind her. The scene is so small and so short but it communicates layers of complexity about the character.
It is the film’s turning point for me because it overturns the maddening but nonetheless popular (and thoughtless) belief that when someone is disabled physically, he or she must be disabled mentally, too. On the contrary, Christine is very smart and she knows what she wants. Aspects of who she is divorced from her disease and physical disability become clearer and more vibrant as the picture goes on.
There are supporting characters who are worth exploring but are unfortunately consistently pushed to the side. Maria (Léa Seydoux), a nurse who volunteers in the pilgrimage and is mainly in charge of Christine’s care, is worthy of our attention because she does mean to do good but is often torn between her duties and a good time with the company of men. The head nurse, Cécile (Elina Löwensohn), is concealing something but when the reveal happens, it feels somewhat anticlimactic because we do not really know much about who she is. These strands feel underdeveloped when they absolutely should not have been because their struggles support Christine’s experiences.