Monday 19 October 2009

Jessica Hausner's Lourdes

UPDATE: See Thinking Faith's review of this film. I suspect that, when he refers to the "coldness" of the film towards the end of the review, Fr Hanvey has not taken a full account of the "stylised" / "choreagraphed" form of the film. He instead suggests a "discreet nihilism" - which is perhaps a fair interpretation of Jessica Hausner's premise of separating character from activity. Since writing my own review, I have reflected that, in leaving aside the warmth of the friendships that are typical of a visit to Lourdes, there is an unintended mis-representation of the phenomenon of Lourdes. See my last paragraphs below.

I posted about this film when it was premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year; on Saturday, Zero and I went to see its UK premiere (sounds very grand!). It was being screened twice in London as part of the London Film Festival. It can be described as a minority interest film in three senses - it is what one would call an "art house" production, it is a French language film rather than English, and it has a title that suggests a religious theme. For all that, the NFT1 cinema at the British Film Institute was pretty much full for a 9 pm screening on a Saturday night.

The film won the FIPRESCI prize (awarded by a jury of film journalists) at the Venice Film Festival, and has since won the grand prize at the Warsaw Film Festival (and here). An interview with the producer, Jessica Hausner, can be found at the site of the Austrian Film Commission, and is worth reading before you continue to read my comments below.

It is a quite enjoyable film to see and does, in my view, represent a genuine encounter of the producer with the phenomenon of Lourdes. The film's credits suggest a considerable collaboration with the Shrine, and scenes are shot in Lourdes itself. That having been said, I think it would be wrong to view it as being a religious film or as being a film about Lourdes as a religious phenomenon - see the interview with Jessica Hausner to see what I am getting at here. Nevertheless, that a producer such as Jessica Hausner is willing to engage with Lourdes is something that I find quite fascinating.

One thing that has to be appreciated about this film is that its artistic style is one of being very "stylised" (my own word for it) or of being characterised by a certain "choreography and geometry" (the words of the interviewer, endorsed explicitly by Jessica Hausner). This means that its characterisations are intended to be, and need to be seen as, representative rather than literal. As you watch some scenes in the film, this creates a difficulty in understanding the meaning of the actions and words of the characters, and you end up not quite sure what to make of them. The portrayal of the priest accompanying the pilgrimage, for example, seems rather distant, unwelcoming and perhaps hostile until you see it in a stylised way. This whole stylised nature is stated explicitly (in visual form, of course) in the opening title sequence, which shows the laying out of the tables in the pilgrims hostel for their first meal, and then the arrival of the pilgrims, almost as if it were a dance. Another word that Jessica Hausner uses to describe her intentions for the film is that Lourdes is to be seen as a setting for a parable, in the sense in which parables occur in the Bible, but a parable for a theme that is not in itself Christian.

So let me review the film by answering three questions.

1. Does the film give an accurate portrayal of what a pilgrimage to Lourdes is like?

In some ways, yes. A pilgrimage to Lourdes, particularly if you go with a diocesan or pilgrimage organisation does have its own choreography. The meal times with announcements by the group leader, the gathering in the entrance to the hotel before forming up to proceed to the Shrine for the next event, the coach trip out of town, the last night party, the visit to the Baths, the afternoon Adoration, the Stations of the Cross, opportunity for Confession. All these are portrayed in the film. However, what is not shown is the warmth of personal friendship between helpers and the sick, and between fellow pilgrims - these are hidden by the "choreography", which uses these relationships to represent other aspects of the film. The visits to the Baths, for example, do not show the warmth of care and the degree of communication that actually occurs between the sick person and the helpers; it does have its element of ritual, but the film removes any sense of the more personal element which, when I had an opportunity to work in the Baths for one day during a stage with Hospitality, moved me in a way that I can still remember vividly several years later. Some details are shown with a keen accuracy - the way in which Christine is lifted from her wheel chair into bed early in the film reminded me of how I was taught to lift a person from a wheel chair on my first stage with the Hospitality. Someone who is not familiar with visiting Lourdes could leave at the end of the film with a wrong impression in this regard, thinking that Lourdes is a rather impersonal place - but remember that the producer was quite familiar with visiting Lourdes (see the interview) so one should not read into this hostility on the part of the producer.

There are some occasional points where the film steps out of its choreography to become more literal. One of these is the conversation between Christine and two fellow pilgrims on the coach on the afternoon trip out, where Christine talks about the difference her cure has made to her - she feels she has a future now. This was the only point at which I can recall the film showing something of the types of conversations and interest between pilgrims that I know from my own visits to Lourdes.

2. What is the theme that the film is trying to communicate?

The underlying themes are those of hope and of happiness, perhaps to be seen philosophically rather than just socially. So, after her cure, Christine will talk about feeling that she has a future, a meaning to her life, that she did not have before. The French phrase for this - "un sens de vie" - combines in an economic use of just four words the implications of meaning, of direction along a road, and of purpose. In the final scene at the end of pilgrimage party, after Christine has been able to dance with the male helper she has poached from the young girl who had been Christine's own assigned helper before her cure; after she has been left by him after falling over; after first refusing her wheel chair as she no longer needs it; and then, as she sits again in the wheel chair, still smiling; the song being sung is one about happiness. The film then immediately ends, going to a black screen for the closing credits, leaving us to wonder whether or not Christine's cure is permanent, or whether the real message of the film is the hope that her cure engenders and which we are led to believe will still be there even if she does have to return to her wheel chair. The iconic image of this happiness is that of Christine shown in a cafe, on her own, eating an ice cream without help - none of which she could have done before her cure.

I think it would be Jessica Hausner's view that, in the film, Lourdes is to be understood as a parable of this theme of hope and happiness, of the sudden and unforeseen event that can change one's life forever. The scene in the film that I found most sad was one where Christine is describing to the priest how here cure happened; first of all she found she could move her arms during a second visit to the grotto and lifted her hands to touch the rock; and the next morning, she found she could get out of bed and dress herself on her own. As Christine describes this, she has stepped out of the choreography and is quite real and natural about it. However, the priest interrupts her account to ask about how she has changed interiorly, inside. Christine is stopped in her tracks as she doesn't really know what the priest is talking about, and this is not something that features in her experience. It seemed sad to me that the priest appeared incapable of recognising that there was possible a hope and happiness, at just the human level, which, yes, is a sign of something of grace, of God, for the person of religious faith, but which, for the person who does not have that faith, can be enjoyed and lived at the level of the human - and which for Christine was destroyed through the forced articulation of it in religious terms.

Linked to this is another theme that is articulated at several points in the film. This is the apparent arbitrariness of who it is who is sick and who it is that is healthy - see Christine's confession where she says she is jealous of those who are not sick and cannot understand why it is she who is sick, and is angry about this. Or the recognition, at several points in the film, that the same apparent arbitrariness applies in the choice of who it is that is cured, a much more worthy example in the pilgrimage not being cured.

3. What is wrong with the fundamental premise of the film?

I think there is something wrong with the premise with which the producer has approached the film; but I do not think that Jessica Hausner has mis-represented Lourdes. The idea of approaching Lourdes from a non-religious perspective and seeing it as a parable for hope and happiness occurring as a result of the unexpected and unforeseen in every day life - what, in the parable, is the miraculous cure - represents in my view a genuine dialogue with the phenomenon of Lourdes. I think it is valuable to see this dialogue present in the realm of non-religious culture. It is a quite fascinating inversion, turning through 180 degrees, of the usual way of understanding a parable - the religious is used as a parable for the non-religious, rather than the other way round. Jessica Hausner, in her interview, identifies this as the "ironic" in the conception of the film.

Two passages from the interview with Jessica Hausner bring out what I think is wrong with her premise in making the film, and which I think needs to be overcome in the portrayal of human character in the film:
The film grammar consists of long, highly precise shots, many of them static. Basically two words come to my mind for the way in which the images are composed: choreography and geometry. Jessica Hausner: Yes, I see it exactly the same way. That’s because I always see the characters in contrast to their task, their obligation. I have a strong sense of these characters like in a game of chess, what’s their role in this process? .....

Apart from the philosophical themes of happiness and hope, Lourdes also involves the social aspect, in the sense of “What role do I play in society? Where can I find my place and the recognition that goes with it? What do I have to do for that?”

In the Christian point of view, and with Jesus Christ himself as the archetypal model, it is the identity of the character and the task, identity of the person and the mission - not a contrast between character and task - that gives meaning, purpose and direction and fulfilment to life. In the Christian point of view, the "stylising" and "choreography" of the film represents a false premise from the start.

PS. Apart from the high brow - the film does have some very funny moments, and the rather ordinary delight of Christine succeeding in taking another girl's boyfriend from her, in some ways a thread that runs throughout the film and on which many of the other considerations of the film hang.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just saw this film. As a wheelchair-user, I think most non-disabled people -- perhaps even the director -- will miss the real point of the film. It catches many of the petty and unconscious little cruelties and condescensions and absurdities so many of us must deal with in return for the help we must have. Yet there is also real human-divine love -- especially represented by Christine's older roommate, whose genuine devotion to the virgin leads her to help break Christine free from the "stay in your place" ethos of the tour and turn it into a real pilgrimage. Significantly, it is she who brings the wheelchair back to Christine after her fall, when the fleeting love interest is about to leave. It is when Christine sits back in her wheelchair -- where the MS WILL take her, absolutely, inevitably -- that the work of grace in the film is complete. It's not just about the ice cream -- please!

I have some quibbles w/ some of the unchallenged presuppositions in the film about living w/ a disability. Thank God and his advocates in the disability rights movement (and those who travel sincerely with us)! Still, so much in this film was true to one form of that experience, its real darknesses and humor (best moment: when Christine is awarded the "best pilgrim" Virgin Mary statue and stands there awkwardly on stage w/ it in one hand and her cane in the other. Hilarious!).

If you want to understand this film as a (temporarily) non-disabled person, may I suggest starting with Robert Orsi's essay "Mildred is it fun to be a cripple?: the culture of suffering in mid-twentieth-century American Catholicism." It's an important take on Catholicism and its paradoxes when it comes to people with disabilities.

I look forward to seeing this one again.