Every once in a while I come across a movie review where I wonder if the reviewer and I have actually watched the same movie. I know that there are often substantially different ‘cuts’ of a movie presented to different audiences floating around out there. One of the classic examples of this is the 142 minute nominally nihilistic Euro-centric theatrical cut of director Terry Gilliam’s classic 1985 film Brazil, and the ofttimes disparaged 95 minute American, ‘love conquerors all’,cut of the film. Even so, sometimes it seems there exists out there a tin-pot doppelganger to a movie I really enjoyed, which I find perplexing – or maybe it’s just that I’m odd in some way.
But, I digress.
I actually don’t actually watch a whole lot of movies; however, since the coming of Netflix to Middle Earth I have been watching many more than I used to, but I think I could hardly match the performance of most serious film buffs. In exception to the general trend, in the last week or two I have seen several very worth while ones that have been turning into fodder for the Meme Merchants Consortium think tank.
This week it has been Austrian director/writer Jessica Hausner’s 2009 film Lourdes that has got the groups attention at the Meme Merchant’s Film Society. On the whole we really liked the film, we each tend to find some fault with certain aspects, but the discussion has been whether we should give it four or five Netflix stars.
One of the Meme Merchant Film Society’s rules is that you never rate a movie with five stars on the first viewing – even if you really want to – you first have to start with four stars then upgrade after a later viewing. The same rule applies to writing a review, you have to have watched the movie at least twice before you start writing, you are free to compare and contrast fist and subsequent viewings, but that should only add interest to the review, not define it. Another Meme Merchants rule is that we do not do movie reviews – we are simply not that kind of a blog. There are probably a million movie websites and blogs out there, and we really don’t want to be another one of them. We do however break our own rules fairly consistently; so, while what follows isn’t meant to be a movie review in any normal sense, it will probably be pushing the ragged edge of what is not-a-movie-review and may well turn into a mad quest.
I find, that whatever its faults as an institution Netflix might have, its collaborative filtering algorithm does a pretty good job of bringing movies to my attention that would otherwise never make it to my neck of the woods – which on balance is a good thing. The Netflix collaborative filtering algorithm and I don’t always agree with each other about how many stars to give a movie, it is often some small and very specific thing that turns a hot Netflix-pic into a dud for me, or turns a middling offering into a real winner – maybe I really am odd in some way, or at least unpredictable by computer algorithm. I have a friend who’s opinion is: “Since I’ve rated over seven hundred movies, I never have to watch a movie that is less than four stars any more!” Which is fine way to do things, but I find that even a fair number of three star movies, or even forcing yourself through the occasional two star movie, are worth the effort, even if you don’t particularly enjoy the effort at the time.
Since we enjoyed Lourdes so much, the question quickly became what do do about it. As is the norm around here, once we figure out that we have a ‘topic’ on our hands, the immediate impulse to start flailing away at the keyboard tends to either get swept out to sea in the spring tide of research, or has to be ruthlessly suppressed when we realize that we have, yet again, bitten off a little bit more than we can chew in one mouthful, and that a more deliberate research campaign is required – and a whole lot of work. This seems to be the case yet again with this article, or what in fact will turn into a series of very long articles.
Or maybe it will just turn into a mad, mad quest.
To help you in deciding if you want to check out this excellent movie I will present you with a few synopses.
[As an aside, once you have watched the movie, check back with these synopses and see how many points made in them were really not supported by the movie, and how much is reviewer speculation or incorrect.]
Confined to a wheelchair for most of her life, lonely Christine (Sylvie Testud) devises a plan to change her circumstances by journeying to Lourdes, the small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where many flock to be healed. The journey yields startling results for our isolated hero in director Jessica Hausner’s Austrian drama, an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.
In order to escape her isolation, wheelchair-bound Christine makes a life changing journey to Lourdes, the iconic site of pilgrimage in the Pyrenees Mountains.
A woman searching for a miracle seemingly finds one — but what comes next? Christine (Sylvie Testud) has spent most of her life confined to a wheelchair, unable to use her arms and legs, and while she has a keen mind and the means to seek treatment, she looks for a solution to her condition in faith as well as medical science. Christine has made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the village in Southwestern France where a celebrated miracle is said to have occurred, and she checks into an upscale clinic where a young nurse named Maria (Léa Seydoux) is assigned to look after her. Christine imagines that she and Maria are becoming fast friends, but the nurse prefers to spend her time with her co-workers rather than her patients, and she often flirts with Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), a handsome man who also works at the clinic. Christine finds herself having several conversations with Mme. Hartl (Gilette Barbier), who has a powerful belief in the healing powers of the waters of Lourdes, and after several days of treatment, Christine is amazed to find that she’s regained the full use of her arms and legs. But once she’s experienced the miracle she hoped for, Christine’s interest is less in thanking the Lord and more in pursuing Kuno. Lourdes was written and directed by Jessica Hausner, and received its world premiere at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival.
Starting in today’s article you are not just going to get the usual Meme Merchants rambling diatribe, you are actually going to get the whole thing – the whole nine yards – which in this case may turn our to mean the length of computer screen you are going to wind up scrolling through over the course of this series of posts. I will explain further below, but the way this particular situation has shaken out is that I have undertaken to retell the whole story, transcribing it from the screen word by word, scene by scene, and then perform a one-man version of Cinema Interruptus, upon the film and go through it again, word by word, scene by scene, to see how much effort it is possible for me to pour into the film, and what that yields. I have never attempted anything like this, so it remains to be seen if this turns out to be a grand experiment, or a mad, mad quest.
It seems to be a polite formality with movie reviews to offer a warning of some kind in advance to readers that what follows is likely to spoil the movie for them by revealing certain aspects of plot, or character that will prevent them from fully enjoying the film. So, between now and the next installment in this series is really the perfect moment to go out and watch Lourdes for yourself uncorrupted by someone else’s analysis or opinion – mine. I think you will not regret the decision, I think its an excellent flick.
You can’t say you haven’t been warned.
I began the quest by checking out some of the reviews from other Netflix viewers. You never know what you’re going to get though: a complaint in the form of a review about a defective disk, or something quite brilliant. In this case the reviews, by real people, run the gamut, but this two-star review stuck with me in particular:
Christine gets rather lost in this uninspired travelogue. We never feel close enough to her to begin to identify what’s in her mind and heart — director Hausner rarely even films a wan, frail Testud in close-up — and by the time the movie finally gets personal, it’s too late to know what we’re seeing (or if we’re actually seeing anything). If anything, Hausner seems most interested in the events and less in the character. It’s not that I didn’t believe. The issue never really came up. I just did not care.
We’ll get back to the particulars of the issues this reviewer raise later, but one of the aspects of Lourdes that I appreciated the most was Hausner’s enormous restraint as director. The film is, in mcluhanesque terms, ‘cool’, meaning that it requires greater audience participation and completion. This film isn’t ‘hot’ [in mcluhanesque terms], it isn’t ‘hi-def’, nothing is handed to you, nothing is explained, you don’t even know most of the character’s names. What this means is that the ‘heavy lifting’ in this movie isn’t being done by the actors, or the director, it has to be done by the audience. Cool! What you as an individual are able to bring to this movie, is what you will get out of it.
Next stop was the RottenTomatoes page for Lourdes, which a film industry sponsored aggregator of reviews, as opposed to an independent or academic one. The Tomatometer’s panel of approved critics gave the film a score of 93% Fresh, not bad, for a sample of 40 reviews [37 Fresh/3 Rotten]. The RottenTomatoes blurb had this to say:
As bewitchingly ambiguous as it is beautifully shot, Lourdes explores profound themes with subtlety and a deft comic touch — and a marvelous performance from its star, Sylvie Testud.
The RottenTomatoes audience gave it a score of 65% like [3.5 out of 5] for 1,453 ratings. Also not bad, especially for a foreign film.
Then, following a link from a web-search list, I came across an article from 2011 at the Wonders in the Dark blog [not a blog I was aware of previously] The Magic of Motion: Jessica Hausner’s “Lourdes” by a reviewer there: James Clark. Reading his blog article I really started wondering if there was another, surrealist-for-Europeans-only version of the movie floating around out there and that we were watching different versions of the film, one fine and one sucky. Actually I couldn’t really tell from what he wrote whether Mr. Clark actually like the film or not, he seemed much more invested in his own intellectualizations than the film itself.
Mr. Clark’s review, all 4,150 words of it seem to have revolved around curve-fitting an idea he picked up, either before or after watching the movie, to the entirety of the movie. This was having to do with writer/director Hausner being influenced during her preparations for the film by French director/actor Jacques Tati.
…Writer-director, Jessica Hausner, has remarked that in preparing and producing her film, “I also thought about Jacques Tati a lot;” and in this she reminds us that although in works calling for heavy lifting we tend to rely upon eagles, in comedy the sparrows come into their own. (Her contrarian casting would, thereby, also tend to revere the similarly disconcerting holdups of Robert Bresson.)
Not a bad idea as far as ideas go, probably one worth pursuing; however, reading the rest of the essay [it was unfortunately a real slog] I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Mr. Clark seemed to have gotten the art critical process almost completely backwards, in that he seems to have become captivated by a ‘funny idea’, namely the possible linkage between Tati’s oeuvre and Hausner’s Lourdes and then proceeded to pour the experience of the film though that idea, rather than watch the film and let the experience of the film produce a fresh idea on its own.
This is an important realization, that the Meme Merchants Consortium is trying to promote in general, the idea that the ‘felt presence of immediate experience’ is primary, and intellectualizations are secondary. The observation of nature, internal and external should always come first – in our opinion. People are free to do what they want, it doesn’t mean they are going to get any prizes for it though – or the prize they hope for instead of the booby prize.
Art analysis really isn’t that much different than science as a method in a certain regard, it should always begin with an observation of nature, in this case the movie, not a ‘funny idea’. If you watch the movie Lourdes and Tati [or Bresson, or whoever] jumps out at you fine, write it, but from what Mr. Clark wrote that’s not the impression I got. The impression I got from what Mr. Clark wrote is that he didn’t watch the movie very carefully at all. His analysis, maybe valid as far as it goes, seems to miss a huge amount of what was possible to see in the film, and did not offer any real understanding or insight to anyone who had not already seen the film, and tends to grossly distort what was going on in the film for the sake of writing style. I think his essay would have been fairly poisonous to the naive audience, someone who hasn’t already seen the film.
So, unfortunately Mr. Clark’s efforts at intellectualizing didn’t really do anything for me at all – except to inspire this. The felt presence of the experience of reading Mr. Clark’s essay didn’t teach me anything new about the film, but I did notice a rising urge to conduct a sentence by sentence evisceration of Mr. Clark’s writing style and analysis. In other words, I found myself subject to this powerful compulsion to revert to my Troll form and conduct an incisive and bloodletting critique of Mr. Clark’s essay, a work, in my opinion, of such intellectual self-gratification that might have earned him a nomination for a writing prize by the late Denis Dutton in the journal Philosophy & Literature.
I decided though, that rather than waste all of that energy on a pointless rant there, I would instead attempt to turn it into an informative rave here. If I had a complaint about Mr. Clark’s lack of insight, observational skills, it seemed to me fair to show that I could do better. So, from that realization springs this project; which is to see if a nobody from the blogosphere, if they pour some effort into it, can come up with more than he did. I did leave as polite and restrained a comment as I could on Mr. Clark’s page, and made some of the same points I just made above. I also left an invitation for him to comment here, and mock me if he thinks I deserve it – and so are you.
About the Method – Cinema Interruptus
The Netflix friend of mine I mentioned above, also told me about this process called Cinema Interruptus, which originated with the Conference of World Affairs, and was hosted for many years by film critic Roger Ebert, involved a unique process which he experienced during his time at UC Boulder. From Wikipedia:
Ebert selected one movie and showed it late afternoon at the beginning of the week, in a normal, uninterrupted way. Then, for a total of 8 hours spread over the following four afternoons, the movie was dissected almost on a frame-by-frame basis. Ebert, or anybody else in the audience, could pause the movie at any point, and comment about any aspect: plot points, acting or directing techniques, camera movement, frame composition, etc.
What a cool concept, but a lot of work. Roger Ebert had this to say about the process:
…The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn’t the teacher and my students weren’t the audience, we were all in this together. The ground rules: Anybody could call out “stop!” and discuss what we were looking at, or whatever had just occurred to them. A couple of years later, when I started doing shot-by-shots at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the conference founder, Howard Higman, described this process as “democracy in the dark.” Later he gave it a name: Cinema Interruptus. Perhaps it sounds grueling, but in fact it can be exciting and almost hypnotic. At Boulder for more than 30 years, I made my way through a film for two hours every afternoon for a week, and the sessions had to be moved to an auditorium to accommodate attendance that approached a thousand.
So with that concept in mind I am undertaking the task of performing a kind of one-man version of the Cinema Interruptus method. I will be literally writing a quasi-screenplay version of the movie and commenting in-line. If you have never done this before, it is more work than you think, even for a movie with as little real dialog as Lourdes. I am hoping that the format I am developing will capture the important characteristics of the film, in a way that is understandable to those who are not accustomed to reading a screenplay, and won’t offend or distract too much those who are.
Some First Thoughts
There are two types of people. There is the type of person who divides people into types and there is the type who doesn’t. I happen to be the type who divides people into types. In the case of Lourdes there seem to have been the type who got it, and the type who did not. The prime divide between these two types seem fall between who can be patient and really look at a movie as it unfolds and those who cannot. So, if you are the ADHD type, you are going to want to take your Vyvance in advance.
Hausner has maintained a very restrained and hands-off attitude towards the way she tells the story. I don’t think I could possibly have been this deliberately restrained. She offers various perspectives and points of views, various alternatives, gives us some hints, but ultimately leaves most of the “heavy lifting” to the audience.
This is a movie you really have to watch. As slowly paced as the movie is, some of the key moments are very subtle and go by quickly. Keep an eye on the ladies in the Bath. If you aren’t sharp and paying attention, you’re going to miss it.
As I said above, its easy to get the process backwards, pay attention to how you are actually reacting to the movie, then try and apply some analysis to that experience. If you are a cinema person for instance, its easy to start looking at a movie in terms of: pacing, camera angles, lighting & etc; however, it may be more useful to notice how affected you feel by the movie and then pick out what: pacing, camera angles, lighting & etc may have created that effect.
There are any number of useful themes and ideas from which to approach watching a movie, you can use them like interchangeable lenses on a camera, they all have different properties and effect your perception of the issues and conflicts of the story differently. I’ve made a list of different ‘lenses’, actually pairs of ideas, that I found either explicit or implicit in the film that you might want to have handy in your camera bag as you watch the movie. I’ve put them in a loose kind of order according to several criteria, but that probably boils down more to which lenses I found ultimately of greater significance. You are of course welcome to use what ever trick, lenses and filters you have in your own tool box or put them in any order you wish.
Issues and Conflicts
Implicit/Subtle/Archetypal – More Significant
- Polarity vs Unity
- Ambiguity vs Certainty
- Mystery vs Explanation
- Passivity vs Activity
- Paralysis vs Motion
- External vs Internal
- Center vs Periphery
- Engagement vs Detachment
- Ritual vs Miracle
- Faith vs Doubt
- Mortality vs Immortality
- Kindness vs Coldness
- Sanctity vs Secular
- Contradiction vs Agreement
- Attraction vs Repulsion
- Consciousness vs Habit
- Sickness vs Health
- Life vs Death
- Loneliness vs Wanted
- Appropriate Behavior vs Inappropriate Behavior
A Note on Characters
Characters in this movie seem to come in diads and triads, some last, some break apart, some overlap. Its interesting to take note of who they are and how they function in the story. Here are some:
Diads and Triads of Characters
- Malade [the sick] and Helper
- The Two Biddies – the Greek chorus
- The Boys – adolescence
- Wheelchairs: passenger and pusher
- Card Players: Fr. Nigl, Herr Oliveti, Frau Oliveti
- Bath Attendants: maiden, mother, crone [a triple goddess]
We have a little bit of a problem with characters’ names for this movie. Only about three or four characters’ names are ever mentioned in the movie. The list of credits for the actors in the film did not list their characters’ names, and the list found on the page at IMDB.com does not seem to be completely reliable. Thus if you are trying to link a character to an actor or actress you have a little bit of work cut out for you. I have tried to save you some work, but am unsure how reliable this information is. I have preferred Wikipedia articles where they exist for these actors, if for no other reason that I believe the links will be more durable [the concept of ‘durable’ being a significant theme in the movie].
[Editors note: Upon further reflection I have switched and reverted to the French titles and appellations to be more consistent with the movie.]
- Christine – malade pilgrim, our protagonist – [Sylvie Testud]
- Cécile – Chief Accompagnateur/Helper – [Elina Löwensohn ]
- Maria – Christine’s Helper/Accompagnateur – [Léa Seydoux]
- Kuno – Hospitaller – [Bruno Todeschini]
- Mme. Carré / Frau Hartl – Older Pilgrim, Christine’s roommate – [Gilette Barbier]
- M. Hruby – malade pilgrim, older man in wheelchair – [Walter Benn]
- Father Nigl – priest – [Gerhard Liebmann]
- Frau Spor – Pilgrim, Biddy One – [Heidi Baratta]
- Frau Huber – Pilgrim, Biddy Two- [Linde Prelog]
- Herr Oliveti – Hospitaller – [Hubert Kramar]
- Frau Oliveti – Accompagnateur – [Helga Illich]
- Sonja – Accompagnateur – young brunette [Katharina Flicker]
- Anna – malade pilgrim, young woman in wheelchair – [Orsolya Tóth]
- Anna’s Mother – Pilgrim – [Petra Morzé]
- Max – young blonde Hospitaller, – [Thomas Uhlir]
- Frank – young brunette Hospitaller, – [Martin Thomas Pesl]
- Hospitaller – scraggly blonde man – [Josef Prenner]
- Hospitaller – [Gerith Holzinger]
- Accompagnateur – [Bernadette Schneider]
- Slender Nun – [Aurelia Burchardt]
- Malade pilgrim – little fellow in electric wheelchair – [Martin Habacher]
- Pilgrim – woman with glasses – [Irma Wagner]
- Pilgrim – blonde man – [Jackie Wulf]
- Jean-Pierre Bely, miracle man in video – [Jaques Pratoussy]
Here we go… see you on the other side of the movie.