Sunday, 11 April 2010

Lourdes and the cinema

In the 1997 film adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's book, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, the director, Julian Schnabel, presents Lourdes with an eye of sophisticated disdain. For him, it is a religious Las Vegas, a vulgar marketplace where pious artifacts fill the shelves of every shop. In the book and film, Bauby is taken by a girlfriend to visit the shrine:

Josephine was a collector: old perfume bottles, rustic canvases complete with cattle (singly or in herds), plates of make-believe food of the kind that substitute for menus in Tokyo restaurant windows. In short, during her frequent travels she bought everything unspeakably kitsch she could lay her hands on. In Lourdes, it was love at first sight. there she sat in the window of the fourth shop on the left, surrounded by a jumble or religious medals, Swiss cuckoo-clocks, decorated cheese platters and -apparently waiting for Josephine - an adorable stucco bust haloed with winking bulbs, like a Christmas tree decoration.

"There's my Madonna!" Josephine exulted.

"It's a present," I said at once with no inkling of the exorbitant sum the shopkeeper would soon extort from me, alleging that it was one-of-a-kind. That evening in our hotel room, we celebrated our acquisition, its holy flickering light bathing our frolics and casting fantastic dancing shadows on the ceiling.

This moral and aesthetic tone of superiority has become the default position for many who wish to portray Lourdes as a commercial quagmire of religious tat. But these representations are partial and stubbornly one dimensional. They are, in part, a reaction to Henry King's cloyingly sentimental hagiography, The Song of Bernadette of 1943. Their myopic view fails to recognise that for most pilgrims (ordinary individuals and families who are often coping with serious sickness and disabilities of the mind and body) mass produced objects are all they could ever afford. At the same time, these crude devotional souvenirs are imbued with a sacred significance and beauty beyond textbook aesthetic considerations. The medals and statues of popular piety cannot be read in isolation but require a reading that includes both the context of the place and the spiritual longings of the pilgrim.

Jessica Hausner's film, Lourdes, is a comedy of manners that, refreshingly, avoids hackneyed representations. The film follows a young and lonely MS sufferer, Christine, who travels to Lourdes to escape the stultifying routine of her wheelchair bound existence. It is a film of immense visual restraint that, in some ways, mirrors the physical restraints experienced by the sick and disabled. Scenes are largely static frames which people move in and out of with a serene choreography. "The camera is like God's eye," remarks Hausner, "observing, never interfering." The symbolic colour palate of the film are the cool greys of hotel lobbys disturbed by flashes of red from the uniforms of the Order of Malta and Christine's sun hat; the cobalt blue of the Virgin Mary.

For Hausner, Lourdes is a place of mystical ambiguity that defies ideological descriptions. In such a spiritually and emotionally evanescent environment, people and events need to be viewed through a cinematic lens of ambivalent meanings (some secular, some religious). Only then can the mysteries of nature and grace; the mundane and miraculous; decay and healing be approached by the secular imagination. In Lourdes, Hausner finds a perfect metaphor for universal concerns:

I want to talk in my films about the mystery of human beings: it is hard to know what goes on inside a person. Love and communication is full of misunderstandings and errors. In that sense, everyone stays alone. All of my films seem to be with concerned with, as Christine puts it, the feeling that "life is passing by without us." Society has invented a structure consisting of rules and aims in order to give you the sensation of a meaningful life. If you achieve this or that, then your life makes sense. Such as: being successful in your job, having a family, having a house or car, being a good person, doing charity, of getting up at eight in the morning and going to the theatre once a month...I always found it hard to accept those rules and aims - find that life senseless and arbitrary. Fate is unpredictable, just as human beings are. MS, the disease that Christine suffers from in the film, is similar - it's an illness that can change very fast. Today you are fine; tomorrow you are paralyzed...the film is not only about handicapped people in Lourdes, but about everyone's fate.

Of course, one of the transcendental dimensions of Lourdes is that people are not defined by their achievements or status (many of the pilgrims have, in worldly terms, "achieved" little) but by the ontological fact that they are persons. Lourdes subverts the social ordering we are accustomed to and suggests a new paradigm, rooted in the life of the triune God, with which people can model their lives. Those who are suffering and weak lead the processions, take centre stage, are honoured. The first come last and the last, first. In Lourdes, it is not the fittest and slickest who are naturally selected, but those who serve and are served. Perhaps, this answers the question at the heart of the film, do miracles exist?


  1. I saw Lourdes recently in Nottingham in a small cinema. The film left me with many questions and also, having never been on a pilrgimage, a sense of awe at the place itself which, I understand from those who have been there, is a place of great spiritual peace despite the hustle and bustle of so many people. A truly wonderful film!

  2. Enjoyed this blog entry Fr Martin and agree with your sentiment but had to pass comment as although I've not seen the film Lourdes I have seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

    The depiction of Lourdes is, as you mention, crude and crass but what an amazing film.

    This time last year I was 'Bauby', locked in and paralysed although for a totally different neurological condition which has meant I have been able to recover.

    But for 2months I was experiencing the things Bauby was and the film makes for an outstanding, inspirational yet emotional viewing.

    I find it interesting that although the Lourdes trip is almost a throwaway section of the film just to highlight Bauby's former carefree life.

    He displays almost a disregard for faith, but the accident then catapults him into an enviroment where he has to live almost entirely in faith. Faith in his nurses feeding him, in his carers washing and dressing him, in his translator, in his friends, in his wife.

    Everyone needs faith if not in God then in the good of human nature.

    Powerful film.


  3. Damian, thank you for your comment and for sharing something of your own experience of being a Bauby and "locked in". I wanted to read more...I agree, Julian Schnabel's the Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a tremendous film (go, rent/get it on DVD folks) and Bauby's book a fascinating account of this condition told from an absolutely honest, unsentimental and heartbreakingly human position.

  4. I'm note sure anyone can answer the question but I have often thought about whether there was/is a reason for JP Bauby or me or anyone to go through these life experiences.

    I don't mean as a punishment for previous misdemeanours, but whether there was a message being delivered amidst the pain.

    JP Bauby was driven in the most desperate of times to write, and in doing so has inspired me and no doubt countless others to overcome adversity.

    I wonder if this was God driving him somehow and I wonder if I'm missing the point of why I went through my illness. The illness took me to a place of total fragility, if not the edge of life then pretty close, and I'm now back in the midst of it all, the rat race so to speak.

    Sounds dramatic but am I missing a calling..:-). Because I would hate that. I look at Lance Armstrong (ok not a parody of virtue) but he knew what his challenge after his cancer was ...get back on his bike, he created the live strong charity and the yellow bands became famous.

    But for mere mortals who overcome illness its not as easy. Maybe I'm thinking too much and these things just happen and Bauby (and to a lesser extent Armsrong) are just a unique and special person.

    I also think of John Hartson, taken to the very very brink, enduring 67 rounds of chemo yet still with us.

    I feel there has to be a reason why he is still with us, why he didn't die ? It really is a miracle he is still here with the severity of his cancer.

    Is that a better question maybe, God can't stop an illness or disease but he did he stop Hartson and Armstrong dying from cancer, Bauby from immediate death and maybe me because there was a message to be delivered or 'work to be done on earth' for want of a better phrase. That sounds horrible reading it back, like I think I've been chosen or something, sorry.

    Anyway its late and I'm rambling, apologies if its not quite appropriate for the comments page on your blog. And I do have some srcibblings of what I went throguh if your interested.

    Time for bed. Ciao.


  5. Thank you for your post Damien. I am glad that you have recovered. To realise that I am not the only person that questions things in a deep and analytical way is a great relief to me. Ramblings and unravelings are all a part of making sense of our individual journey and ultimately allows others to Love and understand us and themselves. Thank you.

  6. Oh Amazing film. I have just purchased a copy of ‘The Diving Bell And The Butterfly’.

    After watching the film there are a few scenes which I can not get out of my mind. But most especially the first scene when the man who was taken hostage, goes to visit Bauby a stroke victim with “locked in syndrome” in hospital.

    In relating his experience of being in captivity for 4 years, He says something to Bauby along the lines of “Hold on to everything inside that is human, it is the only way that you will survive”.

    It strikes me to a certain extent that we are all Bauby,s locked in, whether it be to our morals, our place in society, our vocations, our personalities, our frustrations, our past, our present restrictions bound around ourselves, and even our future.

    One seemingly can not pass through life with out being a Bauby of some kind. This of course is in no way in comparison to people who have “locked in syndrome” through physical or other illness.

    But the butterfly within allows us to interpret those Bauby moments in a way that allows us to fly beyond the restrictions of being human and “locked in”. I would rather the hostage had said to Bauby “Hold on to everything inside that is of the spirit, it is the only way that you can be alive”.

    I feel privileged to have a mind which allows me to be with the people whom I Love in the way that i want to, even though they are not close by. I am blessed to have an imagination that allows all that is mundane in life to become amazing. To me these mysteries are miracles which daily I treasure.

    For me to be “locked in” would be for my spirit to die and for my body to still be working.

    Thank you for recommending this film.