In 1858, the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared 18 times before a 14-year-old peasant girl in a grotto in Lourdes, a small commune in Southern France. In the decades since, the town has become a popular destination for Roman Catholic pilgrims—about 5 to 6 million visitors annually—and a site where many believe that miracles have occurred. Jessica Hausner’s strange, mesmerizing Lourdes approaches this religious mythology with an ambiguousness that can be deeply frustrating at first, as Hausner refuses to take a position on whether the town is a wellspring of spiritual gifts, or a gaudy, exploitative tourist trap. Then the story shifts, and the film becomes an inquiry into miracles—who gets them, who doesn’t, and how it all fits into God’s inscrutable plan.
Versatile French actress Sylvie Testud gives the least showy performance imaginable as a lonely, wheelchair-bound young woman who’s part of a tour group of disabled Catholics passing through Lourdes. Flanked at all times by attractive nurse-attendants, Testud and her fellow travelers go through a rigorously scheduled few days of tours and religious ceremonies, all hoping for the Blessed Virgin to touch them, too. When Testud’s devotion is miraculously rewarded, it’s a transcendent moment that’s flush with possibilities, including romance with a handsome local (Bruno Todeschini). But there are questions, too, about whether the healing is permanent, and why other, equally needy people were not recipients of such a divine gift.
Directing with an icy exactitude that she shares with Austrian countrymen Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, Hausner (Lovely Rita, Hotel) reveals so little of her hand pre-miracle that the film seems unnecessarily vague, even mechanical. But that same lack of emphasis pays off in the second half, when Testud’s extraordinary change of condition is looked upon with curiosity and skepticism rather than transcendence. Lourdes starts from the unexpected position of believing miracles are possible, but it doesn’t paper over the religious and practical problems they raise—for the blessed and bereft alike.