Christine (Sylvie Testud, La Vie en Rose) is an ordinary young woman whose very standard, uncomplicated desires--a boyfriend, a career, some fun, maybe children--are placed a bit further away from her reach than usual by her multiple sclerosis, which leaves her confined to a wheelchair. When we first see her, she has just arrived on her yearly guided-tour pilgrimage to Lourdes, the French mountain town important to Catholics and well-known to the world at large for being specially regarded by St. Mary, who is believed to effect miraculous healings from time to time for those afflicted and suffering souls that make their hopeful way to the village. Somewhat stoical and shy, protective of any hope she might feel, Christine is a desultory believer; she freely admits that she uses the pilgrimage mostly as a way to "go somewhere" (a particular difficulty for a disabled person), though as we witness her observing how much easier it is for the volunteer caretakers of the group--women roughly the same age as her--to flirt and party, reminding her of how excluded her disease can leave her, it becomes clear that Christine would not really mind being chosen for a miraculous healing. When it seems she just might be so honored, however, the consequences and implications of being singled out by the saints for an intervention, with all the further, troubling questions raised by such a seemingly supernatural event, are both more and less than what Christine and her fellow pilgrims had pictured.
Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner (Hotel), Lourdes's writer/director, is wading into some deep waters here, as the film puts hope, faith, religion (as experienced and as institutionally organized), and cosmic justice on the line and under some subtly pressure. Hausner goes for a level tension between potential takes on belief, miracles, and faith, making sure to take full account of the various motivations that have led Christine and the people surrounding her to Lourdes, from a senior aide's embittered, tense, but still very real devotion (indirectly reminiscent of Meryl Streep's character in Doubt) to the flippancy and insensitivity of the younger volunteer caretakers, to the wry sardonicism of a priest, to the simple, pure faith of Christine's elderly roommate, with a couple of gossipy middle-aged women acting as a sort of mini-Greek chorus as they comment half-disparagingly on everything that goes on. Hausner also does not neglect to give more or less equal time to both the tacky-touristy side of the town of Lourdes (which the half-hopeful, half-skeptical Christine also remarks upon) and the long-enduring majesty of its impressive religious architecture. The film is telling a story whose events are quite clear, however unexpected; it is the meaning of those events, how we are to take them, that are held in a nearly perfect state of equilibrium by Hausner's refusal to emphasize or favor one point of view over another.
The film's supporting cast, all of whom are given the difficult challenge of conveying emotions and building characters through restraint rather than demonstrativeness, gives a cluster of fine performances. Bruno Todeschini, as a handsome guide for whom Christine develops a romantic fondness, and Elina Löwensohn as Céline, the sternly correct senior caretaker, are given particular opportunity to shine. But it is Testud's performance as Christine that anchors the entire film; she manages to let us see all of this enigmatic woman's complexity despite the film's necessary absence of any standard sort of exposition or telegraphing of her psychology and motivations. In a film that works its provocative spell by only showing and never telling, Testud delivers a quietly glorious performance to match.
Hausner (along with cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and editor Karina Ressler) has achieved the perfect style and tone with which to shore up Lourdes's contemplative, unresolved approach; it is all deliberately-paced and pared-down images and editing, with fantastically precise lighting, color, and mise-en-scène that positions us, always, at exactly the intended--not entirely detached, but definitely not close-in--distance from Christine and her journey. It is a style that, while Hansler makes it her own, recalls the emotionally cooler yet mysteriously, inexorably affecting aesthetic of films like Götz Spielman's Revanche (a film also shot by Gschlacht) or parts of Denis Villeneuve's Incendies. (It is also probably not a coincidence that Hausner worked on-set as a script girl with the great Michael Haneke before launching her own directorial career.) For as ambiguous as Lourdes painstakingly remains, it achieves that ambiguity so stunningly and compellingly that it becomes, paradoxically, much more satisfying than most films whose meaning is easier to pin down.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, mastered at 1080p and presented anamorphically at a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, is pristine. The film's carefully considered and composed color scheme is so fully rendered as to be almost palpable, and there is not a single noticeable flaw or limitation to the transfer.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack brings Lourdes's mostly dialogue and ambient sound-based (with rare and precious instances of transporting sacred music) aural design to your speakers with the most meticulous of care. The sound is rich and clear from start to finish, with not a single example of distortion or imbalance to be found.
The seemingly thrown-together, skimpy extras are my only quibble with this otherwise admirably done Blu-ray release of Lourdes. All we get is the film's original theatrical trailer (which has a visually stuttering quality not inherent to the source that seems to indicate that it was just hastily transferred over from a PAL format) and its misleading, asinine U.S. trailer, along with a three-minute "Talent Interview" with Hausner that is tantalizing but consists only of jump-cut snippets from what appears to be a longer Q&A, which would have made for a better bonus feature in its entirety.
Jessica Hausner's austere, coolly observant, yet compassionate and moving Lourdes is a film that confounds and awes with the narrative, visual, and aural precision that it puts in the service of a story whose central "miracle" and its aftermath are left almost entirely to us to decipher the meaning of. It is strangely easy to imagine both devout Catholics and the harshest critics of religion being won over by it. (There are, indeed, some little traces around its edges of Luis Bunuel's reverent irreverence, or was that irreverent reverence?) In keeping with the final irreducibility and openness to interpretation that are the film's (very successfully attained) goals, there is something sensuously cerebral--not at all an oxymoron in this case--about the way it looks and moves. Whether you take Hausner's vision to be reverently sacred or critically profane, the pleasures her film have to offer are many; divine or earthly, she has pulled off a profoundly affecting cinematic feat. Highly Recommended.