With its palette of hot poppy red and cool sky blue; its deft mining of the subliminal comic potential of grand, historically heavy locations; and its obsession with watching as an invasive action, Jessica Hausner's Lourdes looks and often feels like the work of a modern-day Alfred Hitchcock. And yet this French film unfolds on a lofty, cerebral plane of mystery that's virtually anti-Hitch: Hausner evades procedural elucidation — the What Happened — for a dryly farcical meditation on the inability to know why anything happens at all.
Blond, wide-eyed Christine (Sylvie Testud, giving a great Mona Lisa smile) stands out amid the crowd of ill and otherwise desperate souls on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a holy spot in the Pyrenees where the Virgin Mary has allegedly performed healing miracles. Unable to move her arms and using a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, Christine's adult desires (manifested in shy flirting with hunky Order of Malta officer Bruno Todeschini) are frustrated by a body that has to be lifted and laid into bed like a baby. As in Avatar, the cripple watches life happen to people with working legs, but Christine projects placid patience while outside forces (the pretty, petulant charity worker whose face registers crude distaste as she feeds Christine and the pilgrimage organizer who scolds her for being too greedy for a healing) conspire to squelch her last vestiges of hope and self-respect.
Christine is a serial pilgrim who admits to using such trips as an excuse to get out. Her faith is clearly not as blind as that of her fellow travelers, but when she starts dreaming of a miracle, she has more conviction than the zealots that her dreams could come true. And then they do. Has God "manifested his presence," as a priest promises? In the world of the film, where even missionaries recommend resignation, is a miracle a real possibility?
Part of Lourdes' appeal is the extent to which Hausner and Testud refrain from demystifying the mystical. Skepticism is the plague of the day: The comforts offered by a belief in God are easily overwhelmed by an uncertainty as to how God's world works and why he chooses to run it as he does. The word "meaning" is often used to refer to a vague something to strive for. "Meaning" proves to be as elusive to find as the concept is ill-defined.
Winking at the absurdity of miracle hunting without fully undercutting its seriousness, Lourdes ultimately eschews rigorous religious inquiry to study the mechanics of envy and frustrated desire. As Christine shifts from giver to receiver of a penetrative gaze, the film delves deeper into the pain and pleasure of watching other people experience the wonderful things you dream of happening to you. In that sense, Hausner has crafted a kind of meta-riff on the masochistic lure of cinema itself.