Jessica Hausner’s new film Lourdes may be the most mysterious film screened at this year’s Toronto film festival, one that takes a story of religious and spiritual import and casts that world and those themes down a gauntlet that suggests Hitchcock and Tati in its supremely calibrated conceptual suspense and encircling humor. The story finds a wheelchair-bound Sylvie Testud, whose character is suffering from multiple-sclerosis, traveling with a group of pilgrims to the French town of Lourdes. We hear tales of miracles, and Hausner’s restrained and stripped down aesthetic—touch points being Kaurismaki, Haneke, Roy Andersson and Eugène Green—in collaboration with its subject resembles the mise-en-scène of films that attempt to evoke a hushed world investigating if not conjuring the spiritual.
Yet the tone of Lourdes is forever uncertain, or perhaps indescribable; that is, Hausner is certain of the tone she is creating but the result is ambiguous. As with many-a-Tati, the combination of a stable location that’s being visited by a recurring cast of characters (the beautiful young volunteer who wheels Testud around, two doubtful, chattering women, the ascetic woman in charge of the group, Bruno Todeschini as an object of romantic desire for the young girl and of inquisitive interest for Testud) creates a vaguely carousal effect of aggregating cycles of events and commentary on the pilgrimage and its setting. This dynamic shape keeps Lourdes on its toes as the cast visits various parts of the town and then returns to their hotel. The variety, limited though it is, of voices and experiences in relationship to the miracle-laden history of the town abut against one another and a defiantly uncertain tone of partial-hushed solemnity, partial sly humor, and partial doubting irony pervades.
This is all complicated by the structuring principle of the film, derived from Hitchcock, to conceptualize a situation pregnant with constant audience expectation. Nearly from the first scenes we are introduced to a film world that suggests a miracle is coming, and throughout Hausner’s mix of process, drama, and even a degree of restrained documentary on the sites, rituals, and pilgrims of Lourdes, we sit awaiting a manifest revelation for Sylvie Testud. When it comes, Lourdes then cannily plays the opposite game; whereas in the first half we avidly wait for something special to happen, in the second half we wait with perhaps greater baited breath for that thing to be taken away.
Expectation positive and negative, then, thoroughly pervades the film, an expectation for the kind of event that in a film by Bresson, Tarkovsky, or Dumont might be more clear cut but in Lourdes takes on this odd, calculated tone of humor, sincerity, longing, cynicism, and melancholy. Perhaps the project is one to dissect in a structured method contingent on a great deal of recognizable cinematic touchstones and forbearers the very kind of ambiguity that surrounds belief in miracles, but despite its rigor Lourdes doesn’t appear programmatic and out to prove something. What it is out for may be a mystery, but its beautiful pictorial precision, hushed weirdness, and human anchoring by the silent movie captivating power of Sylvie Testud (were she alive in the 1920s she would be a global superstar) makes for a strangely beguiling, austere experience of suspense, spirit, and comedy.