“Is God all-powerful or good?” a man asks a priest midway through Lourdes, though Jessica Hausner’s stunning film offers up two more alternatives – is He neither or, like man himself, is he fickle and cruel? Such questions permeate this aesthetically and tonally controlled knockout, which focuses on Christine (Sylvie Testud), a young woman paralyzed from the neck down because of multiple sclerosis who’s on a retreat with other pilgrims to visit the many holy healing sites in Lourdes, France. Christine’s soft, placid face masks anger over her illness and jealousy toward the young nurses who shoot her pitying glances and jovially talk about their nights out, and her belief in the restorative powers of the places she visits seems wan at best, thus putting her somewhat at odds with the priest who preaches God’s love and the throngs of physically and mentally impaired individuals who flock to the sites in search of salvation. Writer/director Hausner opens her tale with an on-high shot of a cafeteria that slowly descends to the characters’ eye level, a visualization of man, not God’s, primacy in earthly affairs that winds up encapsulating the remainder of the film, which proceeds to subtly yet stingingly critique not simply the notion of faith but those who both promote and embrace it.
There’s a sense of censure to a confessional sequence in which a man of the cloth proclaims that when God’s benevolence doesn’t manifest itself through external healing, it does so through internal enlightenment (how conveniently vague!). That critical tone is also directed at the background prattle from two women whose pathetic desire to believe in tall tales of divine cures is married to a decidedly un-Christian resentment at Christine when, after a random day’s outing, she suddenly gains the ability to move and walk. Has she been healed by Christ? Or is it, as her doctors claim, just a temporary remission of her medical condition? Courtesy of Testud’s magnificently restrained performance, full of understated shifts of the eyes and head that convey complex emotional depths, Christine’s transformation from seemingly polite wallflower to self-absorbed center of attention remains sly and beguiling. Lourdes’ second half segues into bitter black comedy, detailing the disingenuousness of priests and parishioners via both the nakedly envious, spiteful reactions to Christine’s “miracle” and Christine’s own decision to treat this turn of events as merely God’s way of saying she deserves to flirt and dance with a handsome gentleman. All the while, the innocent and suffering merely suffer further, their undeserved sorrow, loneliness and pain exacerbated by the incessant hot air about divine love that, from sacred bath to hallowed church, never materializes.