Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sylvie Testud in LOURDES, Jessica Hausner's "miracle" movie at Film Forum

It's the quiet accretion of detail that may get to you first regarding LOURDES, the new film from writer/
director Jessica Hausner about that storied place where miracles are said to occur. From the opening shots of a dining room being set up for the infirm to take their meals, it is clear that we're in for something a little different.  Or a lot -- as it turns out.  First we see the room being arran-
ged, then the guards, the nurses, the patients and finally the routine.  All this is accompanied by such anachronous music (think The Song of Bernadette set to elevator muzak) that you might expect some nasty satire in store -- except that the filmmaker's style seems so calm and caring. Or perhaps simply observant?

Ms Hausner, shown at left, uses middle distance and long shots about as well as any filmmaker TrustMovies has seen in some time.  Her slowly roving camera (cinematography by Martin Gschlacht) takes in so much, and her choice of what to show us keeps insistently making us think about what we're seeing, and why, and what it means.  She doesn't provides easy answers, but rather a kind of consistent, continuous search.

Because the film is set in Lourdes, the town of Saint Bernadette, who is said to have experienced that miracle "vision," we of course expect something of the kind to happen here.  We are not disappointed, though neither are we made to feel particularly "good."  Because the film's central character is essayed by the very fine and very smart actress Sylvie Testud (La France, Fear and Trembling, A Loving Father), whose face quietly mirrors the world around her (her body is held in thrall to advanced Multiple Sclerosis), what happens here is anything but simple.

Ms Testud (above, in wheelchair) captures each moment with her slightly mousy face so fully and well that it is hard to imagine any other actress in this role.  She does not simply hold the film together, she makes it work equally with the writer/director by turning the miracle into something so odd and personal that we viewers are forced to confront it on her terms alone.

There are plenty of others here, whose terms we note, as well.  These include the head nurse, played by the still gorgeous Elina Löwensohn (above), who brings severely contrasting moods to the occasion, a middle-aged guard who is drawn to Ms Testud's character (Bruno Todeschini, below); the other sufferers, hoping for help; onlookers during the event, mostly women who evidently come here yearly (or more often? I'm not that acquainted with Lourdes' lore); and the "nurses" who look after the patients and sometimes look after the younger guards on duty (two photos below).  This interesting cast has been assembled with care and Ms Hausner uses it to good advantage.

In the end, we're left left with questions and yearning. We hope for the best, even as we probably reject the very notion of miracles. I wonder if Ms Hausner is exploring the idea of the sacred against the profane?  If so, it seems we're condemned to a state of blessed profanity.  This is such an interesting and unusual film.

Lourdes plays NYC's Film Forum beginning this Wednesday, February 17, for two weeks daily at 1, 3:15, 6, 8, and 10pm.

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