This 2009 film was made by much the same creative team and crew as the recent Little Joe, but the outcome seems to have found more favour among critics and audiences. The film is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK and is being shown in some cinemas to complement the release of Little Joe. Director Jessica Hausner chose to produce a French language film with the established French actor Sylvie Testud in the lead, supported by a young Léa Seydoux. As the title implies the narrative covers a pilgrimage to Lourdes. This is an organised visit led by members of the Order of Malta. The party comprises a mixed group of people, some in wheelchairs and others with less obvious afflictions as well as carers and the men and women of the order. Christine (Sylvie Testud) is in a wheelchair and Maria (Léa Seydoux) is her designated carer provided by the order and usually dressed in an elaborate nurse’s costume. The film’s dialogue is in French. I don’t think we ever discover where the pilgrims come from though several have names that sound Germanic rather than French.
The pilgrims are on a four day visit which will include visits to the ‘waters’ and to several services of healing as well as more social activities. The group’s leader is the rather fierce Cécile from the order who issues strict instructions about protocol and behaviour. It becomes apparent early on that Christine is not particularly pious and she states that she enjoys pilgrimages mainly as a chance to get away and see somewhere new. She appreciates the organisation because it would be difficult to travel on her own. She has developed a form of multiple sclerosis and is rendered paraplegic, unable to use her limbs. I don’t know enough about this disease to judge but I’m not sure the representation of disease symptoms is meant to be clinically accurate. Christine has no difficulty socialising but Maria needs to help her eat and drink. Christine is placed in a room with an older woman who appears to see the pilgrimage as a chance to find meaning in her life. In this sub-plot, Christine might become a ’cause’ or a ‘project’ for her – leading to potential conflict with Maria, a volunteer ‘Malteser’ who takes her job seriously but who is also distracted by thoughts of what else she could be doing – going skiing?
Hausner’s approach to her story is governed by a sense of distance and an observational stance in the early parts of the film. She represents Lourdes itself much as it might appear in a documentary as members of the group queue up to experience the waters and visit sacred places. The dispassionate camera also records the stalls selling souvenirs and religious icons. Once we have become familiar with the specific group of pilgrims and the helpers, the sometimes static camera offers us wide shots. These are especially evident in the formal services and social gatherings, allowing us to note the different forms of behaviour of the pilgrims, including some competitive moves to get closer to the celebrant who is offering blessings etc. The narrative begins to resemble a comedy of manners which includes both the pilgrims and the carers. We also learn that there is a prize for ‘best pilgrim’ and that the main hope is that somebody will experience a ‘miracle’ which leads to partial or complete recovery from their affliction.
I’m not sure if spoilers apply with a ten year-old film on some form of re-release but you can probably guess what happens and who it happens to. (If you don’t want to know, don’t watch the trailer below.) Hausner treats the miracle moment much as she does the rest of the narrative. I’m not a believer in miracles as such but, as the doctor who is required to examine those who claim miracle cures points out, some conditions can be relieved temporarily and patients can go into remission at any point. Even so some of the behaviour that follows seems unlikely but it enables the director to play out a number of scenarios. Those with physical afflictions can still seek out moments of romance, petty jealousies can become apparent and rather un-Christian thoughts such as “why him or her and not me?” etc. The group has its own cleric in tow who has to answer these kinds of questions. I did notice one element of Martin Gschlacht’s cinematography which features several shots that at first appear to be badly composed but quickly reveal that they are actually very careful compositions. On a couple of occasions we follow Christine as she enters a room and then from a distance we see her half-obscured by a pillar or a doorway. In another case a static view looking towards a congregation obscures some of the characters at the edge of the frame who are in effect cut in two. I take this to be an indication that the narrative is privileging some characters and excluding others – much as the institutional practices that award prizes to pilgrims.
I’m not sure if you have to be a Catholic or indeed a Christian to understand all the subtle meanings in this narrative. I found it interesting and engaging and I suspect that the Vatican thought that it was good to have another Lourdes story even if the narrative is at times quite effective at critiquing some of the institutional issues associated with pilgrimages. This view is supported by statements in the detailed Press Notes. Sylvie Testud is very good in the central role and Léa Seydoux is effective in what is a difficult role.