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French film Lourdes explores religion, faith, and skepticism through the story of a woman on a trip to seek healing at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. Neither overtly for or against Catholicism, the movie is grounded by a strong leading performance from Sylvie Testud. (NBA: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Nicole Ackman
Most films about Christianity either seek to criticize its flaws or advertise its merits. Jessica Hausner’s 2009 film Lourdes has a different focus: to explore people’s belief in and skepticism about miracles. The French film stars Sylvie Testud as a woman with a disability who isn’t religious herself but is on a group pilgrimage and is accompanied by her surly nurse (Léa Seydoux) and a handsome guard (Bruno Todeschini). When what some call a miracle occurs, the reactions amongst the group of pilgrims are mixed. The film received the 2009 Vienna International Film Festival’s Vienna Film Prize for Best Film but was largely overlooked upon release.
Christine (Testud) has multiple sclerosis and needs help to do simple tasks like eat and get dressed. While she isn’t particularly religious, going on group pilgrimages is one of the few ways that she gets to travel. The film finds her on the first day of a trip to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in Lourdes, France, with a group of believers and people with a range of disabilities, all hoping to receive some sort of healing miracle. Her nurse Maria (Seydoux) would rather hang out with her fellow volunteers and the guards than help Christine, and her care primarily falls to her devout assigned roommate, an older woman eager to take Christine to the rituals and sites. Both Christine and Maria have their eye on the same handsome guard, causing issues between them. When Christine experiences what seems to be a miracle, the reactions of those around her are mixed.
Miracles are a mysterious part of Catholicism, and Lourdes isn’t interested in the mechanics of how they might work. The film gently mocks the attitudes towards them and shows how ridiculous it is that they have to be officially logged; one woman remarks that a previous miracle at the site doesn’t count because it didn’t last. The film highlights the rituals around the pilgrimage site without casting judgment on them. But it does highlight the hypocrisy in the skepticism and doubt about the miracles that the group came to Lourdes in hopes of receiving. When Christine’s miracle occurs, the others question why it would happen to her, and many of them doubt its validity despite the proof that it has happened. This contrasts with her unbridled joy despite her lack of prior faith. In many ways, the film is for religion as it is against it.
Subject matter aside, Lourdes is a beautiful and well-made film. The movie has a glossy blue-toned crisp look to all of the shots, which are also very well-composed. One scene of a mass has the air of documentary footage, as though the actors were placed amongst real pilgrims. It is anchored by the quiet but intelligent performance from Testud, who subtly breathes life into a character that could have easily been boring. Séydoux, while having less of an emotional arc, also perfectly captures Maria’s apathy for her job and her desire to have fun, which seems ridiculous in the pilgrimage setting and compared to Christine’s struggles.
Lourdes comes together with its unique plot and church music to create a rather soothing film, even for non-religious viewers. While I can’t speak authoritatively to whether or not the film is ableist, it’s certainly more progressive than many films about people with disabilities. It leaves some mystery—and some choice—up the audience to interpret the events that unfold. Lourdes’s real power is that it isn’t religious propaganda or a harsh condemnation of religion, but rather a story that utilizes religion to show something about human nature.
© Nicole Ackman (11/15/20) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Sylvie Testud and Léa Seydoux in Lourdes
Middle Photo: Sylvie Testud in Lourdes
Bottom Photo: Sylvie Testud and Léa Seydoux in Lourdes
Photo Credits: Sophie Dulac Distribution
Does it pass the Bechdel test?
Yes, it definitely passes as there are multiple scenes of women talking to each other about religion and miracles.