Watched: 2 August

An excellent film by Jessica Hausner focusing on a woman with severe multiple sclerosis (played superbly by Sylvie Testud) as she visits Lourdes in France – a town of just 15,000 people with the capacity to cater for up to 5,000,000 Catholics on pilgrimages each year. Hausner is slyly critical of the whole set-up, or at least that’s how I read the deadpan shots of shops selling holy water and statuettes of the Virgin Mary, and there are also slightly more overt digs, for example characters looking on enviously when the ills of others miraculously heal (at least temporarily), or blasphemous jokes being told directly in front of life-size religious icons.

The director has evidently taken a lot of care in setting up her shots – there’s an incredible amount of detail in some of them, and so I suspect a second viewing would be beneficial, allowing me to take in the actions and reactions of many of the extras. The camera pans and zooms slowly, often from above, as if we have the view of a CCTV camera; scenes are not rushed and there is time to digest any subtext that might be going on, or dialogue that is intended to resonate (Hausner lingers, for example, when a matronly nun explains to a group that they have a ‘free’ day only to then set out two options that they must choose from, or when the same woman later excitedly announces a trip into the Pyrenees mountains before cruelly pointing out that those in wheelchairs cannot attend).

Sometimes long shots are used to highlight crowds or queues, which manages to illustrate the process involved with certain events or with regard to visits at certain holy sites, as well as the scale. There’s attentive and consistent use of colour, too, with red and a kind of ‘hospital’ blue predominant throughout, perhaps representing the simmering passion and unchecked coldness found within the group as a whole, and within certain characters. All of this combines to create a rather sterile, detached style, but I thought it worked really well, suiting the material perfectly. It’s hardly dialogue-heavy but characters are well-drawn and there’s a pleasing ambiguity to Hausner’s treatment of miracles and religion. Surprised that this film isn’t more widely known. (****½)

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