After playing at some of the biggest festivals in the world, Jessica Hausner
's third feature film, Lourdes
, opens this week in New York City. The film stars Sylvie Testud
as Christine, a crippled girl with multiple sclerosis (you may recognize her as Edith Piaf's buddy Momone from La Vie En Rose
). Christine sets off on a group pilgrimage to Lourdes, the sacred French city where a young woman, Bernadette, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Millions of people flock to Lourdes every year to take healing baths, touch the stone, and attend Mass. The disabled, mentally ill, and heartbroken line up, waiting for hours hoping to receive a miracle and in this film Christine is among them.
Hausner's film is a visually stunning, heartbreaking work, where she carefully creates a world with everything is in its right place. The colors are perfectly chosen: the blue and white of the Virgin Mary are only occasionally interrupted by splashes of red. The sets alternate between white-curtained, prison-like holding rooms where the disabled wait for their blessings with holy water and the vast, Disney-like set of the cathedral and holy site of Lourdes. Hausner sets the stage meticulously for a story about the difficult search for a miracle.
As Christine experiences her pilgrimage at Lourdes, what could be a fairytale has some pretty surprising twists and turns. We caught up with Hausner on the eve of the film's release.
Tribeca Film: Sylvie Testud does an amazing job as Christine, who is in a wheel chair during the film. How was it trying to cast an actress for this part and what was it like working with Sylvie? Jessica Hausner:
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, a long preparation period ensued, during which we visited various hospitals; met people with multiple sclerosis to try and understand all the aspects of their daily lives; and penetrated the psychological aspects of the disease encompassing their many concerns, including familial and social ones. For the physical part, we spoke to a physical therapist who helped us understand what living in a wheelchair means: not simply being confined the chair, but problems with posture that sometimes compromise speaking and breathing. Tribeca Film: Sylvie did a great job expressing herself through her face with very precise expressions. The precision in the design and camera movement was also striking. How do you feel those choices influenced the film dramatically? Jessica Hausner:
I was looking for a balance between the look of a documentary and a stylized look. I wanted to tell the story in a documentary-type way and stay outside the characters. owever, I wanted to create a strong visual statement in contrast to a documentary. The film is both a fairytale and a metaphor where no individuality exists in the characters and they simply play a role in society. I am interested in showing the characters simply being products of societal expectations. Tribeca Film: That is evident in the style of Lourdes, which remains incredibly controlled, precise, and tight. How do you manage that on a film set, which can be so chaotic? Jessica Hausner:
Filmmaking is very stressful and so planning is always key. To me, storyboarding helps more than anything. I go all the way with a storyboard, creating my fantasy of what I want and whom I want to see, near or far. I collaborate strongly with my cinematographer, but never change the storyboard very much, even if it means changing locations. My cinematographer makes fun of me because I'm not very flexible!
Tribeca Film: The characters in the film each seem to represent something so different. They seem to be archetypes who all contribute something to Christine's journey. Tell us about why you chose to create characters like that. Jessica Hausner:
Each character somehow symbolizes the injustice humans can experience at any time. Is it possible to get what you want in life and keep it? How do you know it can't be taken away at any minute? Great things happen but are often ephemeral. A tension exists between what humans long for versus what they can achieve and maintain. Chance is stronger than that which is good in life: the ideas of faith, hope etc. Chance gives and takes as it likes. Each character shows one side of this idea. I tried to construct the story in a way that every character has a moment when they are down and you feel sorry for them. A point in each person's life shifts, revealing why they behave the way they do; you see it's not their fault why they act as they do. Rather, all are trying and doing their best and all are searching for their own miracle.
Lourdes opens in New York at the Film Forum today (February 17) for a 2-week run, with shows at 1:00, 3:15, 6:00, 8:00 and 10 pm daily.