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JESSICA HAUSNER Director & ScreenwriterJessica Hausner was born in 1972 in Vienna, Austria. She studied directing at the Filmakademie of Vienna, where in 1996 she made the short film Flora, winning the Léopard de Demain at the Locarno Festival.
'Inter-view', her graduation film, won the Prix du Jury of the Cinéfondation at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999.
Two years later, 'Lovely Rita', her first feature film, was presented in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival before being distributed in twenty territories. Her second feature film 'Hotel' was again selected in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival 2004, and won the Grand Prix for the Best Austrian Feature at the Diagonale 2005. 'Lourdes' is her third film.
'Lourdes is a (cruel) fairy-tale, a day-dream or a nightmare. Ill people of the entire world go to Lourdes hoping to get their health back, hoping for a miracle, because Lourdes is a place where the existence of miracles is still asserted, a place synonymous of hope, comfort and recovery for the desperate and the dying.
But the ways of God are unfathomable, and the hope that on the verge of death, everything may turn out alright is one that seems absurd when life is drawing to an end.
Lourdes is the stage on which this human comedy plays out.'
An interview with Jessica Hausner
Why did you set your film in Lourdes?
- First and foremost I wanted to make a film about a miracle. Miracles represent a paradox, a fissure in the logic that carries us towards death, and the expectation of a miracle suggests a hope that everything will turn out well in the end and that there is someone watching over us. I did a lot of research in order to find a good setting to tell a story about a miracle. I settled on the particular case of Lourdes because I wanted to accentuate the fact that the pilgrims go there in hope of experiencing a miracle. One would think, at first glance, that the miracle could only be a positive thing: a paralytic is suddenly healed. However, during my research into stories about healings, I came upon cases in which the healed person subsequently relapsed: the miracle didn’t last. There’s a parallel here with the arbitrary aspect of life: certain things seem marvelous, even miraculous, which then become horrible or merely banal.
In your film, miracles are also associated with the idea of success…
- Indeed, people who are cured miraculously often ask themselves what they did to 'succeed', that’s to say to be ‘awarded’ a miracle. Is it possible to be ambitious, to conduct oneself as a good Christian in order to attain healing, or are miracles arbitrary? It’s a very important contradiction in my film, the fact that on one hand, sick people hope, and behave according to this hope, while on the other hand they are never certain of being compensated. When Christine is miraculously cured, she immediately asks herself ‘Why me?’ – all the more so because she wasn’t a particularly believing person when she arrived in Lourdes. She asks herself if she is expected to do something to legitimize her miracle.
At the beginning of your project, were religious institutions skeptical about how faith would be represented in your film?
- We had numerous conversations with Monsignor Perrier, Bishop of Tarbes and of Lourdes, about the way that Lourdes would be represented. We also discussed miracles with theologians. We all ask ourselves these questions, and the church is supposed to provide an answer. What’s interesting is that these catholic dignitaries are themselves conscious of the ambivalence of miracles. The question of the meaning of life is at the center of my film and at the center of the church’s reflections as well.
Few fiction films are set in Lourdes... did you have difficulties obtaining authorization to shoot there?
- I went to Lourdes several times while looking for locations. Over the course of a very in-depth research period a mutual understanding evolved between the people in charge of the sanctuaries and myself, and we received authorization to shoot there after a year.
You worked for the first time in France with Lourdes. How did that happen?
- When I made the decision to shoot in Lourdes, in the French language, I thought this could allow me to look at this universe with a virgin gaze and thus achieve a distanced perspective on what Lourdes represents and what these people are doing there…
After the family unit of Lovely Rita and the labyrinthine interiors of Hotel, the city of Lourdes is the exclusive setting of this film. Are you attracted to closed interiors, inaccessible areas or exclusive situations to tell your stories?
- Yes, very much. The location and the setting are very Important to me because they constitute a way of describing society visually. With each film I try to find a unique place, a closed and isolated place that helps me develop a parabolic narrative… I need a closed space as well as particular clothing because they help me develop the story. In Hotel the characters wear the uniforms of the hotel, in Lovely Rita they wear scholarly uniforms, and in Lourdes we have the uniforms of the Order of Malta. I strive to make the characters less individualistic, conceiving them rather as prototypes which form a religious or social system. I’m personally conscious of living inside of a system, and that this partly influences my character. I either do or do not do what is expected of me, and this defines who I am. I am part of society and I play my role in it. This is sometimes a source of tension because that to which I aspire is not necessarily what society can offer me. In my film, I try to describe such a system, one in which each person plays a role.
Why did you choose the Order of Malta?
- The Order of Malta is also a system, and it poses the same questions as the social system in general. What obligations does within its hierarchy? I found it interesting to observe such things at the heart of this order, where people behave not on an individual basis, but in relation to the group’s expectations. It’s the thread that runs through my films: the relationship between one’s role in society and one’s own identity. What power do I have? What obligations? Who am I, and who should I be? My films reflect the idea that one can’t find a solution to this…
How did the actors respond to this very catholic world?
- Some actresses refused to play a paralyzed woman because they felt that the role wasn’t ’sexy’ enough and might damage their careers. Other questioned the catholic content of the film. I explained that although the story takes place in Lourdes, the film isn’t intended to be particularly catholic. I used the setting of Lourdes to tell a more general story…
At the beginning of the film, it’s almost as if the character Sylvie Testud plays doesn’t have a body: she appears gradually, then disappears again. How did you come to understand this role with your actress?
- Sylvie Testud understood the film immediately, the fact that it’s not a tragedy in which the main character is a young girl who is paralyzed, but rather a parable in which she is a symbol. The production was difficult for her because the more we shot, the more it became difficult for her to handle the absence of her body. She could only move her face and this situation frustrated her; she felt in the depths of her body what it means to be handicapped. It was a very powerful experience for both of us.
How did you work to prepare her role?
- The preparation phase was quite long. Sylvie Testud and I visited several hospital complexes to meet sick people, and each visit helped us to understand the disease a little better: on one hand there are personal, familial and social anxieties, while on the other there is the physical experience of being strapped to a wheelchair. We also worked with a physiotherapist to understand how Sylvie should walk at the end of the film. What was extremely interesting for us was to emotionally enter into a fatal situation, to be handicapped, and to find there a kind of normalcy and unexpected sense of well-being. Day after day life continues, however it is.
The actors’ performances appear precise, very controlled. How did you work with them?
- First I develop a very precise shooting script. I draw a storyboard to determine the camera movements and to establish the composition of the images. I follow this storyboard very closely during production.
As for the actors’ performances, my goal is to establish the fact that these people are organized by a system, as if the actors comprised a ballet troupe dancing according to the rules of a dance, a choreography of the society in which they live. On the set, I compose the image, then I inform the actors of their positions and movements. The first tries are usually mechanical enough, but as soon as the actors learn how to move within this constricted setting, they start to ‘live’ inside the scene and the film comes to life. I expect from the actors that they remain very lively within this framework. That’s what is difficult about this working method…
Léa Seydoux, for example, is a very lively and intuitive actress who brought a lot of naturalism to her role, but it was sometimes difficult to keep her inside this framework! Men remain in the margins in your films. They embody power: as priests, officers of The Order of Malta, doctors or fathers.
How does masculine power influence your heroines?
- The main character is a woman. The men for their part belong to the institutions, and embody positions in their hierarchies. I think that institutional power and authority are terrible, because they are nothing but a facade hiding an empty core. Men in powerful positions disturb my female characters, who sink into a sort of void when they realize that this system of authority is without substance. My female characters often learn over the course of the film that this masculine authority can’t provide them with answers. They are disabled by it.
Your film goes beyond Lourdes and Catholicism. What type of faith are you interrogating?
- The film interrogates the ways in which we can give meaning to life by our actions. Contrasted with this idea is the fear that the world is cold and bleak, without profound meaning, and that one is born by chance and dies in the same way and that nothing one does in life is of any import. The truth is difficult to find: our lives are at once wonderful and banal.
The film’s point of view is more philosophical than religious…
- Yes, it tends towards a general line of questioning. I am interested however in the emotion that accompanies the religious sentiment. To have faith is to believe that something exists that can’t be explained and which exceeds the limits of our comprehension. Believers call it God. Faith allows one to accept that miracles can happen – that’s the essence of faith. A miracle exists in my film: something ‘miraculous’ occurs, but afterwards it becomes rather banal. Thus one realizes that this ‘miracle’ doesn’t contain a moral or a meaning… that it’s perhaps only a coincidence. It’s only a temporary stage because nothing is certain. Lourdes is not the story of a healing, but rather like a Russian doll in that one opens one shell after another without every arriving at the center…
Where you influenced by other films?
- With my previous film, 'Hotel', I made a lot more references to other films because it played with the genre of the horror film. With Lourdes I was more free, even if a film like Dreyer’s Ordet inspired me a lot with the subject. The films of Jaques Tati were influential to me for their humor.
Could one interpret your miracle – in the style of Lazarus, or ‘Rise up and walk’ – as an homage to the power of faith?
- No, because the person miraculously healed is not someone of particularly strong faith. The miracle in my film is beautiful, but it’s a bit as if it weren’t caused by anything, or anyone.
Why is your style composed of long, planned sequences that are often static, with the exception of crowd movements?
- There aren’t only static shots, but also camera movements and zooms. My compositions tend towards images that explain how the group functions. At a certain moment in the film there’s a group photo: the individuals seem to melt into the mass. The photo’s composition is telling: on the left are the women (of the Order of Malta), in the middle are the sick people and on the right are the knights. After the shot, the ensemble dissolves back into chaos. That little scene contains the whole story that I wanted to tell.
Why do you show the prayers, the visits to the cave and the baths in their duration and not in a more elliptical manner?
- I showed the elements of the pilgrimage process: the rituals, the venues… The true ellipsis is elsewhere, for the film makes an economy of the essential: the flaw in the logic, the reason for the miracle.
Why do the white curtains play such a principal role?
- I’m playing with the idea that something is hidden behind the curtain. What exactly? That’s the question. I’m talking about the unknown, that which escapes us intellectually, that which is emotionally foreign to us. But after that, when one glances behind the curtain, one sees something terribly banal. In Hotel, the character discovers a parking lot behind the curtain, and in Lourdes the curtain is hiding a cleansing ritual with the holy water of Lourdes. One draws back the curtain but doesn’t find answers. The meaning escapes us once again.
At times the lighting in Lourdes seems to ‘illuminate’ your characters, though without bathing them
in a ‘sacred’ atmosphere…
- I was mindful that the light should not create a sacred atmosphere or evoke the presence of a being or superior force. I also avoided alluding to a superior force with crane movements, for example. I prefer a solution like the one in Dreyer’s Ordet: when a car’s headlights sweep across a wall, a madman sees the arrival of death and the family percieves the arrival of the doctor’s car. The doctor arrives, and five minutes later the sick man is dead. Everyone was right: the light on the wall was at once a premise of death and the headlights of a car. I think it’s magnificent when a director finds an aesthetic that reflects this paradox and ambiguity…
Could one say, in summary, that your film revolves around a mystery?
- A miracle questions the meaning of things. Can I influence the course of my destiny through my good actions, or am I nothing more than a balloon in the claws of chance? This contrast between the meaningful and the arbitrary is the heart of this story. It’s for this reason that after being miraculously cured, Christine says ‘I hope I’m the right person’.