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Jessica Hausner • Director

A shocking Lourdes, between the sacred and the irreverent


- Cineuropa met with a filmmaker whose latest film reflects the ambiguity of the faith in miracles

Jessica  Hausner • Director

For some it is the most "blasphemous" (even Buñuel-esque) of recent films, the most sophisticated in demystifying the sacredness of the "Disneyland of miracles" overrun each year by millions of pilgrims. Others saw in Lourdes [+see also:
film review
interview: Jessica Hausner
film profile
a profound albeit controversial religious sentiment, comparing it to the classics of spiritual cinema, from Dreyer to Bresson. This range of opinions is the most obvious proof of the "discreet charm" of the ambiguity of the third feature film by Jessica Hausner, a hit at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where more than a few felt it deserved the Golden Lion.

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Cineuropa: Where did the idea for the film come from?
Jessica Hausner: I’m very familiar with religion, I was raised in a Catholic family before moving away from faith, and the miracle is one of the most interesting aspects of Christianity. It is a paradox, an interruption, a rupture even in the logic that leads to death. I tried to understand what would be the best place to set a film about miracles. After a lot of research, I decided I had to shoot in Lourdes.

What in particular fascinates you about miracles?
The difficulty, if not impossibility, of distinguishing when a miracle is true, lasting, from when cures instead are a coincidence, a moment of temporary improvement before a relapse. This is a doubt shared even by many priests I consulted with.

What was your first impact with Lourdes like?
Terrible. In Lourdes you see hordes of sick, often seriously sick, people who are guided by an impressive will to live, and by an unshakeable hope to experience the miracle. It is a shocking place.

Was it easy to gain access to the sanctuary?
Not in the beginning, the ecclesiastical authorities were burned by the last film shot at Lourdes, which pilloried religious sentiment. But after numerous meetings, including with the Archbishop, we convinced them to allow us to shoot in the sanctuary, and were only barred access to the actual pools, in which hundreds of pilgrims immerse themselves every day.

The film relies on the extraordinary performance by Sylvie Testud. How was it trying to cast an actress for the lead, and working with her in particular?
Casting wasn’t easy, many [actresses] turned down the film, fearing that the not very “sexy” role would damage their career. After I chose Sylvie there was a long preparation period, during which we visited various hospitals, met people with multiple sclerosis to try and understand the most everyday aspects of their lives, from eating to getting dressed, and penetrate the psychological aspects of the disease, their worries, even the familial and social ones. For the more purely physical part, we spoke to a physical therapist who helped us understand what it means to live in a wheelchair. It doesn’t simply mean being forced to live in a chair, but also having a posture that sometimes compromises your ability to speak and breathe.

Stylistically speaking, were you inspired by any directors from the past?
In my previous film, Hotel [+see also:
film profile
, I was more of a film buff. This time I thought mostly about the films of Jacques Tati, for a certain kind of humour, and Dreyer, in particular Ordet. I didn’t want Lourdes to be pervaded by a sacred atmosphere, by the presence of a superior being. I preferred a mise-en-scene that reflected the ambiguity that was the backdrop to the entire film.

There is a powerful line in the film: "God is either good or omnipotent". Does that reflect your point of view?
If possible, shooting Lourdes moved me even farther away from religion: if God exists then he’s unjust.

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