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?