In her latest film, Lourdes, Austrian film director Jessica Hausner paints the world as a place in which human beings grasp at scraps of meaning and hope.
The film, which opens in cinemas in time for Palm Sunday, is a distinctly secular take on the Marian shrine. The lead character, Christine, played by Sylvie Testud, suffers from multiple sclerosis and in a wheelchair. She travels to Lourdes with an Order of Malta pilgrimage. Here we are privy to much suffering: Christine is not particularly religious, we learn, and primarily goes on pilgrimages in order to travel. She appears to be miraculously cured and can walk. The other characters are in turn perplexed, annoyed, infuriated and ambivalent about the miracle. The girl has to get the miracle authenticated. As one character asks, why has God chosen her and not someone else?
Hausner’s first experience of Lourdes came after she decided that she wanted to make a film about a miracle, “knowing that it was not the phenomenon of miracles I was interested in but the metaphor; what a miracle stands for. Human hope is this essential wish to escape from an unsatisfying situation.” She adds: “I started my research and then I found Lourdes. I was really interested to learn that such a place existed, where people could come and be cured. It was like a fairytale.” In her lilting Austrian accent she explains that she was shocked when she first visited Lourdes, because she had never come across so many sick people with awful illnesses, the palpable presence of death and the very strong hope of the pilgrims. It depressed her. “The people come there to find comfort whether it is physical healing or spiritual healing, whether it is psychological comfort or spiritual comfort.
“They seek something that also shows how desperate they are. I was shocked because I found it depressing. I found that maybe they shouldn’t hope so much and maybe they should try to make the best of it and maybe not put their trust in God because God does what he wants; and so I felt very pitiful for the people who go there hoping for so much.” Like most Austrians, Hausner had a Catholic upbringing, attending a Catholic school even while her parents were not religious. A youthful 37-year-old, Hausner is a slim glamorous blond who challenges the stereotype of the old balding male director in baseball cap.
She says: “When I grew up I very much thought that I cannot believe that God exists, because [His existence] is not very obvious. I thought that injustice and the bad things in the world were too strong for me to be able to believe in God. I think this is very typical of people who grow up. They lose their childish faith and as an adult it is something completely different to believe.” Throughout the film, the crisp black, red and white uniforms of the Order of Malta offer a structured contrast to the sick pilgrims’ clothes. The members of the Order offer a sub-plot, with the flirtations and frustrations of young people who are on the pilgrimage for a variety of reasons. Hausner says that she came across the Order while she was doing her research for the film. They were friendly, and she was invited to take part in a pilgrimage with them, which she says was an interesting experience for her because after her first visit to the shrine she was “a bit worried if this would be a film I could make at all because it was horrifying”.
The Order of Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes – often peopled with well-to-do youngsters – gave Hausner a glimpse of a separate society with its own rules, where people had their own lives.
“It made a strong contrast to the sick people because the people from the Order of Malta are wealthy,” says Hausner. “They do this kind of charity work out of goodwill or education or social tradition, and this made an interesting contrast. It helped me to be able to draw a portrait of the society of lucky ones, and the ones who are not lucky.” Hausner’s characters are often in two minds about their faith. Is Hausner criticising religious people who seek to give answers? She says that no one knows the answers and the film is not about saying that those “who believe lie to themselves”. “I think I offer another point of view which says that any kind of explanation or interpretation you try to find for what is happening in life will be half-hearted,” she explains.
“There is a kind of mystery and non-understanding of why things happen in the way they do, and maybe there is no explanation and it is very human to try and find one. Everyone has this longing to explain and also to foresee. You want to know what is awaiting you and you will never know. Death will come and you will see what happens.” Ambiguity and ambivalence are strong parts of Hausner’s film. She says that the film sets out to show “the ambivalence of a miracle” where people have their wishes and longings but are subjected to “the ambiguity of fate”.
She says: “There is no such promise to be kept. You might be a good person but you might not achieve what you are longing for. There is no justice.” During her research trips to Lourdes she was looking for different characters to show various perspectives and to be part of the ambiguity.
“Each of them has a different point of view and expresses another aspect of what is happening. And still you find out that no one’s right, that no one has the right answer for it but there is no one who finds a satisfying answer. This is what the film is really about.
“Yes, it’s possible that something truly miraculous is happening. But what next? What does this miracle tell us? Does it give us any hints or clues about what to expect next? And the ending of the film is this consciousness of decay. That even if you find your happiness you might not be able to keep it.” In a previous interview Hausner said she disliked the fact the Church was “selling salvation”. What did she mean by that? “The fact that in our society, and it’s not only the Catholic Church, it’s also in non-religious society, everything is oriented towards a sort of improvement,” Hausner replies. “You always want to get it better than you have it and there is a strange dream behind that you can always have it better than the others, or more than the others, or a fulfilment of what you are longing for.” Hausner cites the television shows, which offer makeovers and cosmetic surgery to women, as an example of this phenomenon and goes on to say the Church is guilty of this too. But the Church, she says, has a very strong influence on society “because it has been for so long the strongest ideology which says that one day you will be saved”.
For Hausner, the idea that Jesus came to save us is something “that always postpones things to a later time” and she doesn’t like it. “I would prefer to accept that there is a strange, unsatisfying half-heartedness in life that you will have to accept now,” she says.
Review: Page 14