In the prologue to this series: Lourdes – Prologue to a Posy, I laid out the premise that I was going to be conducting a detailed, though maybe not microscopic, analysis of Austrian director/writer Jessica Hausner’s 2009 film Lourdes as a kind of didactic exercise to see if what a relative nobody like me, if he applied himself to the subject, could come up with. The particular didactic method I have chosen to use is a kind of one-man version of the Cinema Interruptus format developed by film critic Roger Ebert, which I elaborated upon in the previous article.
So, what you are going to be seeing is something resembling a screenplay of the movie, which I am currently transcribing in stages from the screen word by word, scene by scene, with my comments and observations interlaced between. I really don’t know how well this is going to work, I’ve never tried anything like it. As I said in the Prologue, this may very well turn into a mad, mad quest. Nothing, hazarded nothing gained. At the very least its good practice for me. Let’s hope you are able to gain something from it as well.
The WordPress blogging platform and this particular theme, impose some very strict limits on what it is possible to do in terms of formatting a structure this complex, but I’ve devised something out that seems to work reasonably well. My aim is is first readability and comprehensibility, only then ‘correctness’ in terms of format. So, if neither aim is satisfied to your satisfaction, my apologies in advance.
Now we begin the task in earnest.
Again, if you have not read Part One of this series, this is your polite warning that what follows is likely to spoil the movie Lourdes for you by revealing certain aspects of plot, or character that will prevent you from fully enjoying the film. So, now is really the perfect moment, if you haven’t already, to go out and watch Lourdes for yourself. I would hate to be the one to ruin that experience for you. I hope you enjoy it.
For your convenience I will also reiterate the list of issues and themes I devised for the prologue.
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
I have also reiterated this character list, also from the prologue.
[Editors Note: Update – Upon further reflection I have decided to use the French appellations and titles for characters, for greater consistency with the film.
- 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]
- Mme. Spor – Pilgrim, Biddy One – [Heidi Baratta]
- Mme. Huber – Pilgrim, Biddy Two- [Linde Prelog]
- M. Oliveti – Hospitaller – [Hubert Kramar]
- Mme. 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]
So to begin…
Written and Directed by
INTERIOR HOSPICE-REFECTORY – EVENING
From above we see the dinning room of what appears to be a rather nice hotel. The wait staff are pushing carts down the isles, setting the dinner for the guests: tureens of soup, baskets of bread, water; all very nice, somebody is spending some bucks here tonight. We hear only the footsteps of the servers on the marble tiled floor and the knock of bowls as they are set on the table. We notice that a number of the tables are missing chairs. What’s up with that?
MUSIC CUE: “Ave Maria, Franz Schubert”, [softly, male soloist, then chorus]
We see a young man enter bottom right of the screen pushing a walker with some difficulty. A little fellow zips in from bottom left of the screen with a WHINE in his motorized wheelchair. Enter the halt, the sick, the blind – les malades – several are in wheel chairs, each, with assistance, finds their assigned place.
ROLL OPENING TITLES:
Enter all together the other Pélerins [pilgrims]: the helpers, les Accompagnateurs, les Maltesers, and les Hospitalliers, along with them the nuns, priest, and the laity of the Order of Malta.
It is not announced, and it is never explained, but what we are witnessing is the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes of the knights and dames of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The Order of Malta is the modern continuation of the medieval Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the Knights Hospitaller: the oldest surviving order chivalry in the world. Each May over four thousand Maltesers, the knights, dames, clergy, physicians, nurses and auxiliaries return from all over the world to Lourdes, the town in the French Pyrenees famous for the Marian apparitions of St. Bernadette and its miraculous healing waters to bring the sick to be healed. It is worth mentioning that the sick, les malades, do not pay for this trip [unless they happen to be wealthy themselves], they are sponsored by members of the Order.
So, if you don’t understand this context, you are going to miss a lot. These people are all either knights and dames of the Order, the auxiliary, or their charitable guests. This isn’t emphasized, but it is implicit in the situation. Many of the Maltesers you see over the course of the movie are real Maltesers, not actors or extras hired off the street. Fiction is being woven through with reality. This is one part of the burden placed on the audience by Hausener, and it is a kind of a test, you either do some lifting and find out something about who these people are, or you let it slide and miss or misinterpret one of the significant grounding planes of the movie.
If you are sloppy in your research, don’t bother to read the closing credits, and because you see a Maltese Cross, leap to the conclusion that this is the St. John’s Ambulance you are going to draw some incorrect conclusions, or at the very least the possible metaphors of: chivalry, pilgrimage and graal quest get lost, or lose their proper grounding.
In this film the metaphorical linkage of this pilgrimage to graal quest is more literal than is possible for almost any story imaginable. The present day Order of Malta, as an order of chivalry, is a direct continuation of the Knights Hospitaller, and are the real world successors to the origins of Christian charity and the Graal impulse in the West. Uh, oh, there he goes again off on another graal quest of his own.
With the graal metaphor, questions you have to start asking yourself are: who are the graal knights, is there a graal king? an Anfortas the unhealthy one? how about the graal castle? Listeneise? where does the Wasteland exist in this context? Is it underlaying the landscape of Lourdes, or in the Pilgrims’ hearts? What was the Dolorous Stroke? How is it to be healed? and of course, what is the graal? To take the idea one step further, what is the linkage between the graal metaphor and the saintliness metaphor? Is there one? Question, questions, questions to prime your pump.
When you open this box, you find that there is a whole lot inside, that speaks directly to the human condition – if you open the right box.
Professor and historian Neal Gabler said of Hollywood, and by extension film as a media:
Hollywood’s main function is to help the audience come to terms with with whatever it is watching… †
Simply to draw comparisons from Lourdes to French New Wave cinema [which was some forty to fifty years ago now], without some kind of a thesis, doesn’t really cut it in my mind. If you can’t get past the superficiality of cinematographic self-reference you lose the power of cinema to perform that most basic function, help us come to terms with our lives, or societies, and our mortality.
I still haven’t quite figured out how to properly describe everyone. In the credits list at the IMDB.com database, the personnel of the Order of Malta are referred to as: Hospitaliere, Malteserin, Malteser, Pilgerin, Pilger, and Noone. I’m not sure if this is completely correct. The term accompagnateurs, used in the film for ‘helper’, in France usually denotes a kind of public health aid, as opposed to a trained nurse. I know that the Order does take its own nurses and doctors along with them on this pilgrimage, but I do not know how to distinguish them by the way they dress. Since I do not understand the distinction between Hospitaliere and Malteser, so for sake of consistency I am using the term ‘Helper’ or accompagnateur for the ladies in the nurses habit and ‘Hospitaller’ for the uniformed men and ‘Malteser’ for the uniformed branch in general. Les Malade [the sick] is the term that is generally used in Lourdes for people on pilgrimage who are ill, or handicapped in some way and finally ‘pilgrim’ for the group as a whole. Thus everyone is a pilgrim [pèlerin in French], some are malade, some are Maltesers, Hospitallers or Helpers, but some are just Pilgrims, there for the trip or to support the others.
[Editors note: if there are any members of the Order of Malta, supporters or friends out there who can set us right on all of this terminology your comments and suggestions are most welcome.]
I should have caught this before, but failed to mention it. The concept of being a supporter, a helper, is one of central importance in many more traditional societies – including christian societies by the way. As I learned from serving a Lakota community, the Blackpipe Tiyošpaye as firekeeper for their sundance for five year in the early 2000’s, the concept of being a supporter, as in a sundance supporter, was one of very central significance to the community. For all of the Sundancers, the Sundance leaders, medicine people, fire-keepers, all of this would have been for naught if it were not for the enormous effort and travails of the ordinary people, because the Sundance was really for them anyway. So it is here in Lourdes, for all of the high muckety-mucks, the ordinary people who’s efforts sustain and create the pilgrimage must not be forgotten, including all of the church groups back home whose combined efforts might sponsor a single malade whom they might never meet.
One thing that struck me very forcefully during these opening sequences is how much time, energy, and money is being lavished upon the malades. This is not just a summer outing, somebody, is spending quite a lot of money on this operation, there is an organization standing behind this event that we do not see, much like we do not see most of the film crew, production company, or backers that produce the movie that we are experiencing.
We see the Helper ladies are dressed as, prior to the Second World War, one would recognize as a nurse: starched white dress and apron, red sweater, black wool cape with large white Maltese cross embroidered over the heart, and of course the starched white veil covering their heads. When you see the lady accompagnateurs next to the nuns you will be reminded that the traditional nurses uniform is in fact derived from the nun’s habit. The hospitallers on the other hand are dressed in a vaguely paramilitary style uniform, drab grey-green and with a black beret, worn European style, with the red flash and white Maltese cross nearly over the left ear. The Pilgrims and the malades are dressed as ordinary people and it may take some time to sort who is who.
We see Cécile [Elina Löwensohn], chief of the accompagnateurs, and who seems to be running this group’s affairs, standing with clipboard in hand and belted with a little red hip pouch, in the center of the assembly. As soon as she speaks we find out, if we didn’t already know, that this is a group of French speaking pilgrims and that most of us will have to be distracted by subtitles to follow the dialogue.
It is unfortunate, and unfair, but probably true that foreign movies lose about half a star with me simply because I cannot ‘get’ them the way a native speaker would, even films I like. About half the movies I watch are foreign films or contain substantial amounts of non-English dialogue. What’s a non-polyglot to do? learn perfect: French, German, Italian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish… “One has the gift for languages, another does not.” as Father Nigl observes later on in the film. I do not have that gift, I struggle enough with being understood in English, and understanding my fellow anglophones.
CÉCILE [soft but firm] Si vous plait. [attention please] Change of program.
Well here we go, we’re off on an adventure. As my buddy Phi likes to say, “An adventure is what you are having when nothing is going according to plan.” This was the official announcement that whatever people’s [including the movie audience] expectations might have been, they have now officially been broomed. It should be noted that this also signals the transition into the realm of magical possibilities, both good and bad.
CÉCILE-CONTINUED [soft but firm] We've put off our visit to the grotto until tomorrow morning. I'm sorry. Our voyage has been rather tiring. We've all been looking forward to this, but it's too late now. Tomorrow our schedule will be even busier. This is why I ask all of you to make an effort, so that we can get everything done in a cheerful manner and, more importantly, so we can open up to one another. Each one of us should make the most of this occasion, we the helpers, but also you the pilgrims, you came here to help, foremost those of us who are sick, those who are in need. They shall feel better, even if only for a few days. They shall forget their loneliness and find some happiness and relief here. At the end of our stay we'll award a prize for the best pilgrim, as a reward for their good deeds. Information about Lourdes and the apparitions can be found in this pamphlets.
We see see Cécile stand nervously for a moment, [does she have more to say?] look around her then exit off screen left.
So, this is more or less the movie in a nutshell. Its a very soft opening, we don’t know yet who or what this is all about, but Cécile as group leader of the Maltesers has already established the premise and expectations of the pilgrimage – at least the official point of view – les malades of course will have their own unique sets of expectations.
We see the pilgrims are serving themselves food and starting to eat.
I notice nobody has said grace, or we have missed it?
Descending to a seated height, we see from over her left shoulder a young wheelchair bound malade, Christine [Sylvie Testud], sitting with her hands folded in her lap. We see Maria [Léa Seydoux] her young Helper sitting at her right hand serving soup from the tureen into Christine’s bowl.
We see Christine, she turns her head to the camera, giving us a shy smile.
We see Maria take a spoonful of soup from Christine’s bowl, blow on it to cool it, and then feeds it to Christine, holding her off hand under the spoon to catch any drips like the priest holding the paten under the host as he serves mass, lest any consecrated drip fall to table, or on Christine’s lap. Christine opens her mouth like a baby bird and takes the soup in neatly.
Quel surprise! In this way we discover that Christine is paralyzed from the neck down, and it seems may have been this way for some time. Later on we will discover that she is suffering from MS, but all that is immediately apparent that she is profoundly disabled, but very used to it. We never discover what home or institution Christine comes from or what her family situation is. She is: intelligent, polite, introverted, and gently self-effacing, but apparently with some ambition for her life. Intéressant.
MARIA Are you enjoying yourself? CHRISTINE Yes. [eats some more] It's a little touristy, but that's how all pilgrimages are. MARIA Have you been on many? CHRISTINE Yes, its the only way I get out. It isn't easy traveling in a wheel chair.
…If you are a quadriplegic. Needless to say there is some real irony in the humor, and a trace of embarrassment.
This is an important point to consider. I’ll try not to give you ‘the’ answer. But it appears quite clear that Christine’s trip to Lourdes has very little to do with any personal expectations of a miraculous healing. Check her out, watch her general level engagement with the various processes she will be put through during her stay at Lourdes. It seems apparent that most of Christine’s initial motivation for going on these voyages with the Maltesers, is that they provide, for free, a level of care and group organization that enables her to travel at all. There is huge irony in her statement, “It isn’t easy traveling in a wheel chair”. She literally cannot lift a finger for herself, she has to have a dedicated support system for herself just to survive. BTW, keep an eye on her hands when they appear in the shot.
The destination seems to be secondary to Christine, though as she says later she does prefer the ‘cultural’ destinations. She really just wants to get out of dodge, whatever home or institution that may be. And, how often do you think this is? once a year? twice a year? Watch Christine at night and think of the endless hours in between. Think of the constant humiliations being: fed, clothed, washed and diapered by strangers, in order to make these trips – only to be pushed around and look – but at least you can look.
The two young women, Christine and Maria, present an interesting juxtaposition in similarities and contrasts, both seem to be getting along. Maria is quiet beautiful, buxom, young, college age, but with still a little baby-fat on her face – radiant and healthy. Christine on the other hand seems a little older [how much?], pretty, but no beauty, almost a little funny looking, she’s all eyes and nose, with a very slight but pointed chin. She is also very thin, almost wasted, her skin is thin and a little wan. You think you haven’t seen such a thin actor in a movie since Christian Bale in The Machinist . Maria seems interested and friendly, and Christine seems willing to indulge her helpers curiosity.
INT. HOSPICE-CHRISTINE’S ROOM – NIGHT
We see Christine in her wheel chair next to her hospital bed. Cécile is finishing dressing Christine in a nightgown for bed. Maria stands to one side, arms hanging, with nothing to do.
Cécile isn’t ready to give Maria much to do independently yet. Maria has this characteristic way, when she is bored or doesn’t know what to do, of just letting her arms hang in this noticeably slack way at her side but with her shoulders slightly hunched forward, like she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself. This is acting I suppose.
We see Cécile come around behind Christine as she sits in her wheel chair to prepare for the transfer from chair to bed. Cécile rotates the chair’s arm out of the way. She crosses Christine’s arms with one hand, interlocking wrist and elbow, and laces her other arm through Christine’s arms from behind, then does the same with the other arm. A complicated maneuver, but gracefully done.
CÉCILE [to Maria] You take the legs. One. Two. Three.
We see Christine lifted gently from her wheel chair and laid out on the bed. Cécile shifts Christine’s hips to align her spine, gently lifts and straightens her neck to align her c-spine and airway, then gently smooths her hair.
I’m already starting to get teary eyed, I had no idea I was this much of a pushover.
CÉCILE Regardez. [watch me]
We see Cécile lift Christine’s interlinked arms with one hand and pull the bed clothes up neatly around Christine with the other, instructing Maria as she does. She then gently rest her arms back down on top of them. Cécile then raises the head of the bed slightly, with a WHINE.
CÉCILE Ca va? [That's good?] CHRISTINE A little higher.
We see and hear Cécile raise the head of bed a bit higher.
The complete attention, grace, gentleness, and skill with which Cécile performs each movement is breathtaking to watch. This actually had me in tears, it was that beautiful to watch. When I’m ready for Depends, I hope I have someone like Cécile to take care of me. I told my sister, who is a house doc at a long term rehab hospital, “You have to watch this movie, then you need to require each member of your staff to watch this movie, it should be your new standard of patient care.”
I tried to find a screen shot that would capture the moment to insert here, but nothing worked, you have to watch it in motion pictures to get it at all.
We see the two Helpers kneel opposite each other at the end of the bed, Cécile facing us, Maria back to us, place the palms of their hands together in prayer.
CÉCILE / MARIA ...Sainte Marie, pleine de grâce. Le Seigneur est avec vous. Vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femmes, et Jésus, le fruit de vos entrailles, est béni. Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, Priez pour nous, pauvres pécheurs, maintenant et à l'heure de notre mort. ~Amen
Some recovering Catholics may go into fits and paroxysms when they hear this, which is really too bad, there should be an effective therapy for that kind of problem – resistance to the beauty of your native religion. I’m not Catholic, but I do have about a thousand years of French Catholicism [maybe more] encoded in my DNA – or maybe its a very persistent methylation pattern encoded on my DNA, or my particular miasm, or even some type of spiritual ‘ullage’, but in any case, hearing those words spoken that way, I just get it, and it comes out as tears. What I really appreciate is that Jessica Hausner had the courage and presence of mind to leave these Ave Maria’s intact, as many times as they occur in the film, and resisted the temptation to abridge then for our post-modern comfort. I have no idea what Ms. Hausner’s religious convictions are, but as a movie maker, this was a right decision, it was very powerful.
CÉCILE Bon nuit. [Goodnight] CHRISTINE Bon nuit.
We see for the first time that Christine has a room mate, an older lady pilgrim, Mme. Carré [Gilette Barbier]. She has been at prayer, crosses herself, arranges the objects on her night table, and is now ready for bed.
We see Christine and Mme Carré laying in their beds, the only light in the room comes from Mme. Carré‘s bed light.
We’ve only seen Mme. Carré in background of shots so far so it is a real shock to find out that she has been the witness of the preceding scene. Who is she? how did she wind up with Christine? Is she good for Christine? This represents another recurring motif is whether Christine is being witnessed or not. At times Hausner shows something happening with Christine, and only in the next shot do we see that someone else present has been watching the whole thing go down – or – something extraordinary happens with Christine, but it only happens at the moment everyone else is looking away.
We see the two women laid out very stiffly in their respective beds.
MME. CARRÉ Do you like her? She's beautiful isn't she? The Virgin is watching us.
We see Christine laying there with her arms still folded on her chest. She smiles.
This is another recurring motif seeing paralyzed Christine’s breathing accentuated by the rise and fall her arms crossed on her chest. As an actress she is nearly as confined as the character she plays, she must be paralyzed. For much of the film Sylvie Testud has most of an actors normal arsenal of physical technique made unavailable, or at least overtly so. How does a paralyzed person create interest in themselves, with some great difficulty. Even later on in the movie when she rises from her chair, Christine is, even at her best, still awkward and ungainly, hard to be the romantic lead. This is actually very fine acting from Ms Testud, but she must attract the audience’s sympathy and attention in other than the usual ways.
In certain ways Christine is like Mathieu Amaric’s character in the Diving Bell and the Butterfly , another character robbed of psycho-motor control, except that in Lourdes there aren’t any ‘before’ scenes to contrast with what has been lost by Christine to the disease. If have an imagine in our mind of a young, beautiful, and able Christine, it is only because we can imagine it.
INT. HOSPICE – LOBBY – MORNING – CONTINUOUS
We see, from behind, Mme. Carré kneeling in prayer in front of a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, complete with white fluorescent halo. We see the Two Biddies: Biddy One, Mme. Spor [Heidi Baratta] and Biddy Two, Mme. Huber [Linde Prelog] as always joined at the hip. Nearly tripping over Mme. Carré, Biddy One gives a glance at the neon Virgin then down at the homely Mme. Carré.
Both of the materialist Biddies seem perplexed by Mme. Carré‘s piety. One wonders, what are they doing here in Lourdes in the first place? The Two Biddies are important, if annoying characters, they function as the Greek chorus of the film. I’m sure if I looked hard enough I could also find some prototypes for them in cast of commedia dell’arte stock characters [Maybe you can think of some]. Their inappropriate sniping at everyone around them does serve the important function of always stirring the pot.
MARIA AND CHRISTINE
We see Maria, doing her best imitation of Cécile preparing Christine for the day’s excursions, adjusting Christine’s trademark red rain-hat and buttoning her coat. We see Kuno [Bruno Todeschini], the handsome and more mature of the male Hospitallers walk by the two young women as they prepare to depart for the days packed schedule of activities.
Trouble! Christine gives the disappearing Kuno a bright smile. Maria turns and gives the receding Kuno an appreciative look as well.
This is where it all starts to go wrong for the relationship between the two young women. Christine notices, Maria noticing Kuno. Uh oh. But really? How can this really end, except badly for Christine? This is a real hang-up for the able bodied to notice, how do we automatically dehumanize Christine, or those in her position by denying them the humanness of the types of attraction that every able bodied person takes for granted. Is Kuno really the right guy for Christine anyway? We’ll have to watch and find out.
THE LOBBY ENTRANCE
With the Neon Lady of Lourdes in the background, we see the whole group being marshaled in the lobby. We see Cécile bright and chipper extend the shaft of her red collapsible umbrella with a SNAP with the canopy still furled, and hold it up like a sword, or a torch, or a guidon to lead her troops through the dense crowds of Lourdes. The act is at once completely practical, and apparently standard operating procedure with the group, and also deeply symbolic. But what is the correct symbology?
Whereas, in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati broadly pokes fun at a superannuated military officer [The Major, André Dubois] who issues marching orders (as if wielding a sword for a cavalry charge) for picnic outings and the like, the treatment of Cécile, who flourishes a furled red umbrella to marshal her charges toward forgetting their “unhappiness” and enjoying “some relief,” is more measured, in light of Christine’s embarking (after a short period of over-eager outreach and forced gratitude) on a spate of productive bemusement about a context the unviable nerve endings of which are strung about with delicious access.
Not a bad comparison as such, though the paragraph ends in a muddle, its just that you just don’t really don’t need to reach for Hulot’s Holiday for an explanation, here. There is a comparison, but it seems to me the comparison is either backwards, or misplaced. My complaint to Mr. Clark is that unless you already had Tati on the brain for some other reason, would you pick Tati’s Major as your comparison? and if so why? This is a chivalric order we are dealing with, such imagery is internally, thematically, as well as practically consistent. What is the correct reference? St. Michael? The Major? Liberty Enlightening the World? What?
CÉCILE [to the group] Don't forget your raincoats.
We see Cécile, then all the other pilgrims exit the hospice.
Speaking of which, what is this place? It is never made clear and reviewers are differing in opinion. After trying and then discarding, ‘hospital’, and ‘hotel’, and ‘hostel’ – one reviewer assumed the facility everyone was staying at was a “clinic” of some kind – I finally arrived at ‘hospice’, which has a slightly archaic definition of a lodging for travelers especially one run by a religious order, or, a home providing care for the sick, especially the terminally ill. This place, what ever it actually was, or where ever it actually was [the location may well not have been in Lourdes], offers a facility adapted for those with special needs, but allows outsiders to come in and provide the specialist care for the guests themselves. As best I can determine the Order of Malta does not operate any facilities in Lourdes itself, though it does run hospitals elsewhere in the world, notably Bethlehem, Palestine.
[UPDATE – As I have been doing more research I have come up with a little more information on one of our locations. I did discover that the location used in the film was in Vienna. I also I found out during the day’s research and writing that the facility, that for lack of a better term I had settled on calling a “hospice”, seems to have been modeled on the Accueil Notre Dame and the Accueil Marie St. Frai, in Lourdes. I don’t have a good enough translation for the French word ‘accueil’ other than ‘public hospitality facility’; however, the function described seem very close to a nursing home or hospice. So, I will be keeping the term hospice for the facility, but in the spirit of the more ecclesiastical setting, I’m scrapping the use of the term dining room and replacing it with refectory, and will update to that term thoughout.]
EXT. LOURDES-STREET – MORNING
We see the procession of pilgrims, Maltesers, and the malades as they wend their way in a long procession along the sidewalks and streets of Lourdes. We spot the Two Biddies, browsing in a gift shop as the line of wheelchair bound invalids rolls by.
EXT. LOURDES-STREET CROSSING – MORNING
We roll across the street and out into the sunshine, and we see Kuno performing one of his basic, manly, functions as crossing-guard for the procession. Christine smiles slightly as she passes by him.
Mr. Clark had this to say of some of the scenes of the Pilgrims on their way to and fro as a group:
…As it happens, Christine travels in a large convoy of wheelchair-confined invalids, and their laying down a world of inertia takes nightmare proportions in dovetailing with thousands more of their ilk, converging on that centre [sic] of belief-therapy and its break-the-bank (long-shot, to be sure) promise of miraculous transformation. [¶] The hint as to Tati is useful; but so is the hint not requiring explicitness, namely, the affinities of this quasi-livestock procession with the astringent depths of Bresson, most specifically, Balthazar at Risk (1966), and its donkey protagonist…
Wow. When looking at a scene like this I like to point out that the concept of pilgrimage is an ancient one. It has its own legs, and can stand on its own feet as a primary metaphor, and can be interpreted as such without having to resort to a successor as explanation, such as the donkey protagonist of Robert Bresson’s 1966 Balthazar at Risk as proposed by Mr. Clark. In fact it might make more sense to make the comparison in the opposite direction and note how like a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the hero donkey Balthazar’s peregrinations might have been. Or Mr. Clark might have discussed what exactly Bresson’s metaphor was in casting the protagonist of his story as a donkey, and which makes the comparison here useful.
One thing that struck me, that gave me a little moment of ‘huh?’ on first viewing was how the first sidewalk scene is somewhat ambiguous as to whether it is day or night. A couple of the outdoor scenes in this movie where there is strong ground level lighting, and dark backgrounds, have a similar ambiguity, which can be a little confusing for the feeling of continuity – or it was for me on first view. Was this an effect of the need for reduced use of cinematographic lighting for the scenes shot in public spaces coupled with some days of particularly cloudy weather? Don’t know, but I noticed it. By the time we arrive at the sanctuary itself it is a bright sunshiny day.
EXT. THE ENTRANCE TO THE SANCTUARY – MORNING
We see, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes laid out before us. For the first time the grand scale of the pilgrimage as a whole becomes apparent as we enter the grounds. The fairytale Rosary Basilica with its amazing flying stairways is in the background. There is a procession of thousands of people circulating around the mall in front of the basilica – very impressive.
EXT. LOURDES-THE GROTTO – DAY
VOICE OVER [loud speakers in the background] Santa Marie, pleine de grâce. Le Seigneur est avec vous...
We see our pilgrims waiting in line patiently to enter the grotto. Christine is just one of many waiting in line. Approaching the ramp, one of the Hospitallers directs her and her helper to a short-cut for those in wheelchairs. Mme. Carré notices Christine as she wheels by. The Two Biddies note her special treatment as an attendant directs her up the wheel chair ramp.
CLOSE ON: we see Christine, and Maria as they pass along the interior of the grotto; its limestone walls are darkened and polished smooth in places by the touch of countless hands.
One interesting bit of information to become aware of, and it’s one watching the movie, however carefully, won’t really help you with, is knowing that the grotto itself is consistently depicted in a very close cropped and isolated frame. We are not shown the larger context of the site, namely that the Rosary Basilica, which figures prominently in other shots, perches mere meters above the grotto. The masonry foundations of the church blend directly into the rock formation of the grotto that it stands on.
This seems to be a general feature of the movie, intentionally or unintentionally, that there is a general geographical discontinuity of locations. If you don’t know Lourdes well, you will be a little lost – or very lost. I didn’t know Lourdes at all and have gone back and attempted to pin down all of the movie’s locations, but it does seem to be a general feature of the cinematography that there are few explicit establishing shots. There was some kind of a creative decision here, this is the influence of the French New Wave maybe? but you can notice how it changes your experience of the movie and your perception of space and time to have the locations and settings of the movie islanded like this. You never know exactly where you are, and your whens are sometimes a little iffy.
Note to Mr. Clark. I’m deriving all of this solely on my subjective experience of watching the movie, not a priori knowledge, ‘funny ideas’, or an encyclopedic knowledge of French New Wave cinema.
We see the pilgrims in line along the wall of the grotto. Christine and her helper are directed around a portion of the line and up a special wheel chair ramp by an attendant.
We see Maria run her hands along the smooth, polished stone with unexpected wonder. Christine is lost in thought, or bored, or disengaged, till she notices Maria’s experience.
We see Maria, in an act of charity, reach down to take Christine’s hand, fingers curled involuntarily inwards, and run it along the polished stone. It is an intimate moment for the two young women. Christine smiles, at the sensation, or at the thoughtfulness. Then Christine shifts immediately back into her interior world and looks away.
One anonymous Netflix two-star reviewer complained:
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).
Wow, somebody else who watched this movie’s sucky double. To bad. This movie is not Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. Sylvie Testud is not Audrey Tautou, where you can get away with keeping her: voluble, beautiful, charismatic, young woman’s face in tight close-up half the movie and not bore everyone. Gamine, is probably about the last word you would use to describe Christine. Christine is just not Amélie Poulain, she is a bit of an odd duck, you don’t immediately fall in love with her, she’s all eyes and nose, a bit pale. You wonder a lot about what is going on inside, and you don’t get many direct answers. To quote Father Nigl from later on in the movie, “God is free, His ways are often mysterious, when we expect everything to be explained.”
So are directors.
It is also worth observing that there are in fact several, not many about three or four, lingering close-ups of Christine, but not tight close-ups. In this one you have to notice that she is a very internal person, very introverted. Because she cannot act physically in the world beyond the bare minimum, Christine, naturally, has internalized all her actions. Not much reaches the surface, so it is important to note when it does. Habitually, Christine has learned to look, to observe, and to think. For Christine, even the most basic survival activities, must be mediated by someone else. Watch, Christine is actually kidnapped [in a well meaning kind of way] several times during the movie, how does Christine react to somebody unlocking her wheelchair and driving off with her? Why do people feel like they have permission to hijack the paralyzed patient?
One of the dominant qualities of this movie is its reticence, which presents itself in almost every aspect of the movie. As media, and as a story it is also ‘cool’ in the McLuhanesque sense of the word, that is, requiring more audience participation, and completion. This means that you are going to get more out of this movie if you have more to bring to it. If all you have is an unfinished film-school education under your belt, you may be somewhat limited in what you can get out of this movie, because you don’t have that much to bring to it.
One other thing, when you do get this close to Christine you notice that she is not as young as you may have assumed initially. While presented initially as young, on second glance Christine appears to be quite a bit older than college age Maria. It seems she’s been sitting in that chair for a while.
Which brings us by a “commodius vicus of recirculation”* back to the opening paragraph in James Clark’s blog article:
We are so accustomed to having films speak to us by way of players whose physical presence is, if not awesomely attractive, awesomely repellent, that, when we are confronted with a predominant protagonist like Sylvie Testud’s “Christine,” in Lourdes (2009), we become somewhat squelched. 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.)
Hmm, another animal metaphor. One wonders what sort of protagonist Sylvie Testud’s “Christine” actually was in Mr. Clark’s mind, other than neither, “awesomely attractive,” or “awesomely repellent” that lead him to feel so “squelched”. I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that we both agree that Sylvie Testud was a good casting decision, I just can’t read his mind. Without a phrase in that first sentence somewhere that tells us what kind of a protagonist Clark thinks Testud is, it remains an uncompleted comparison, and fairly meaningless. “Squelched” can have a couple of meanings, the one that seems to be the one that was meant in this case is: “to halt, stop, eliminate, stamp out, or put down, often suddenly or by force;” [Wiktionary] which would be too bad if that were the case with Ms. Testud.
Film scholar Annette Insdorf has said:
Films often have an audience surrogate. There has to be a character with whom the majority of the audience can identify.‡
I think, though not exhibiting the kind physical appearance that is “awesomely attractive” that Ms Testud does posses a more ordinary kind of attractiveness and charisma that naturally engenders sympathy from an audience, and with whom they are readily willing to identify, a low key star quality. I also think that image changes somewhat from beginning to end of the film. If you look at the topmost image on this page I think it would be fair to say that you are presented with an image of pony-tailed Christine that is in many respects still girlish, if you compare that image to that of Christine at the very end of the movie, you are presented with the image of a woman, she could be someone’s wife.
So I will propose a different definition for squelched, one from telecommunications and audio engineering. In those fields a squelch circuit is sot of noise gate that acts to suppress the output of a receiver in the absence of a sufficiently strong input signal. In other words adding squelch makes the hissing and crackling noise in our earphones go away until a our receiver picks up a strong enough signal to be heard properly. Maybe a protagonist of less than awesome attractiveness has the effect of eliminating some of the psychological noise in our systems and allows us to see the character behind the actor more clearly. Some of the noise in the signal that needs, in my opinion, to be squelched, is the possible limitation that the audience would have to get past of seeing Christine cast as someone who’s awesome physical attractiveness places her too squarely in the role of romantic heroine. I think casting Orsolya Tóth as Christine would have been a mistake, she is too beautiful not to be a distraction. In the role of Christine we need someone cast who can carry the weight of both misfit and the weight of romantic interest – equally.
I seem to be full of metaphors today.
Back to the movie…
Christine sees an elderly man ahead of her, kneeling down with his hands outstretched on the rocks of the grotto, praying. She sees him stand up and lean forward and kiss the rocks.
For Christine, this is a formative moment, she consciously repeats it herself later on. For a person in Christine’s position, however you start in life, if you wind up paralyzed your options for getting your needs met: emotional, psychological and physical is pretty limited. One general direction to go is more extroverted, the other is more introverted. Christine’s paralysis is a metaphor for this, its perfect actually, ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ is the usual way of saying it, but here it is a little more extreme, the will is there but there is a complete break in transmission to the flesh.
INT. THE BATHS-WAITING AREA – DAY
We see Christine being pushed by Maria up to the waiting area for the baths. Cécile and Kuno are serving Lourdes water. Cécile offers Christine some water which she accepts, but she gets a sippy cup like a two year old. Both Christine and Maria have a discreet eye out for Kuno. It is obvious that he has a large ring of some kind on his ring finger as he pours the water. Kuno himself is nonchalant, or does not notice, or pretends not to notice, the attention he is getting from the ladies; he’s used to this maybe? Exit Kuno and Cécile.
INT. THE BATHS-OUTSIDE THE DRESSING ROOMS – DAY
We see the Two Biddies seated together against the wall to the left of a large reproduction of the statue from the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, Mme. Carré seated to the right of the statue. We see Christine roll up to the group, but we only see her legs and lap, the rest of her is hidden off screen.
Here is another trope to look for as you watch the film, notice how marginal, that is off to one side or another, or placed off center in a group the character of Christine often is at the start of the film, how she starts to become more central to both the camera and the group until she has a kind of maximum moment of centrality, before she finally drifts out of the shot at the end of the movie. It becomes very noticeable in this sequence, when we start we see only her feet and knees at the margin of the screen.
BIDDY TWO [to Christine] Well, are you pleased to be going in? CHRISTINE I guess so. BIDDY TWO [to Biddy One] They say that the last healing occurred in the bath. BIDDY ONE [to Biddy Two] And what happened exactly? BIDDY TWO [to Biddy One] There was a man who had suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for years. Apparently, it was in the baths that he suddenly recovered use of his arms and legs.
We see Christine being rolled fully into the shot.
BIDDY TWO - CONT. And that's how he was cured. CHRISTINE [turning her head to the Two Biddies] I heard that too.
We see the line of those waiting along the wall shifting down one. Biddies One and Two both try to secure a new seat on the other side of the statue, but there is room for only one. Forced to break the connection between their hips Biddy Two is forced to retire back to the opposite side of the statue.
How exactly the text book definition of the Chorus they are. A gently humorous moment, if anyone has missed the point that these two are completely inseparable, keep watching, the two will repeat this scene again later, apparently having learned nothing from the situation. They also have the habit of inflating and then deflating each others’ hopes about the prospects of a miracle, Biddy Two being the optimist, and Biddy One being the pessimist.
We see Mme. Oliveti, one of the senior lady Accompagnateurs, slide into the seat vacated by Biddy Two.
MME. OLIVETI Sorry to butt in, but it didn't happen exactly as you said. Firstly, it happened at the blessing and not in the baths; and secondly his paralysis came back later.
We see, Christine and her helper move forward and park in front of the statue.
MME. OLIVETI - CONT. That's why it wasn't officially recognized as a miracle. BIDDY ONE [to Frau Oliveti] He did walk again though? FRAU OLIVETI But it didn't last, so it didn't count. They're very strict about that. ATTENDANT - VOICE OVER Next person. MME. CARRÉ What if the healing does last?
We see, Christine and her helper move off screen right and we follow her as she is wheeled in side the changing area by an attendant. Christine and Maria smile at each other as Christine disappears behind blue and white striped curtains. We see Maria is left standing outside, with once again her arms hanging, looking rather bored.
The young ladies are still on good terms, but Maria’s attention span seems to be waning.
INT. THE BATHS-CHANGING ROOM – DAY
From behind we see Christine, seated in a wheelchair, already changed into a white sleeveless garment. An attendant removes her ear rings,
MUSIC CUE: [Lourdes Baths Organ Theme]
We see a second attendant complete tucking in the garment Christine is wrapped in and add a blue shawl to cover her bare shoulders. We see the white curtains drawn closed in front of our view.
The mood to me seems to be one of deep reverence. This is another one of those moments when you get to wonder deeply about Christine and all of the people who handle her body. How skillful and careful they are shown to be here. What is Christine’s attitude? she must be used to it by now, but is it a fatalistic resignation she feels or something different? Is it different today different than others? Does she score people on how well they do? That would be an interesting roster to look at.
This is an institutional setting where very large numbers of people are processed through a particular ritual process. This is the reality of the situation as it actually performed in Lourdes, 15,000 or more pilgrims arrive in Lourdes every day. What you are seeing is a kind of ritual theater, as well as devotional practice for both the malades and the attendants. I have to say that from my experience, Catholics still know how to do this sort of thing very well. As ritual theater, this is what you could call a well-made-play, very well made. The whole construct, and it is of course a construct, is designed with great care to preserve the privacy and dignity of the malade, and still deliver the whammy, if that is possible.
I’ve done quite a lot of this sort of thing, being the ritual operator, the person with the mojo, not in a Catholic context, but I did get my start with a group of Catholics as an attendee many years ago. Obviously people are performing for the camera here, but I am in a bit of awe. I have a hard time imagining doing this all day, every day and still do what you are watching these attendants do, with such skill, grace and composure. No slips, no faults. Perfectionner.
INT. THE BATHS-ANTEROOM – DAY-CONTINUOUS
We see a young malade with very short hair Anna, in a wheel chair, her beautiful and well dressed mother, and an older attendant. The young malade is struggling fiercely with her mother. She does not want to go in – who knows why – she remembers from last time that the water is cold? At some level she is resisting the magic of the place?. We and a half dozen or so other woman malades, look on passively.
MOTHER It'll be all right. It will do you good.
We see the mother wins the battle and hustles her daughter, with some embarrassment behind the curtain into the sanctum.
ATTENDANTS - V.O. [from behind the curtain] Notre Dame de Lourdes...
Shock! What is going on here? It is very distressing to watch the struggle between mother and disabled daughter. What is really going on in there? Who’s side are we supposed to be on?
We see Christine parked there in the back of the anteroom, looking very distant, detached. Other, older ladies are waiting passively. We hear Anna whimpering as the praying on the other side of the curtain continues.
Christine’s expression is impenetrable, she seems deeply withdrawn. For the first time we really get a good look at Christine’s hands as they lie crossed in her lap, they are both curled in a claw like aspect. Useless – ‘inutile’.
We see the back of the shoulders of one of the older ladies waiting in the anteroom, she has a very unpleasant looking skin disease peaking out from under her blue shawl. The older attendant opens the curtain and beckons the older malade inside the sanctum. The curtain closes. The organ music continues…
One wonders, is Christine thinking, “Is this my future, twenty, thirty, forty years from now? Is this all there is for me?
We see another attendant push Christine in her wheel chair forward, bend forward smiling kindly and say:
ATTENDANT You are next.
Lourdes has been likened to a Catholic Disneyland, there is something to be said for that criticism, here we see a certain mechanicalness, like the car of an amusement park ride, of the process of shuffling the bodies of the pilgrims around. Still, it is done with a certain care and gentleness.
This is also another one of those lingering semi close-up moments where we get to really watch Christine as she deals with her world, but there is also another older lady behind her, watching her. First Christine smiles, watches the attendant with some interest, then retreats inside herself again
ATTENDANTS - V.O. [from behind the curtain] Notre Dame de Lourdes, Pray for us. O Mary, conceived without sin, Pray for us...
EXT. LOURDES-CANDLE SHRINES – DAY
We see the young malade Anna again, now neatly dressed, and with a crocheted blue cap covering her very short hair. She is parked in her wheel chair in front of one of the many stainless steel, votive candle shrines out side. She is sitting slumped slightly in her wheel chair, her head hanging to one side and her arms resting uselessly in her lap. We also see that she is quite beautiful, like her mother, and somewhere between the ages of Christine and Maria. We see Anna’s mother lighting a tall tapered votive candle, nearly a yard long. We see the mother cross herself, glancing back at Anna, and start to pray.
Anna is a rather heart breaking character, she is young, genuinely beautiful, but doomed. She appears, like Christine, to have advanced MS, or something equally unpleasant, which comes and goes, but most of the time leaves her wheelchair bound and looking rather vegetative. Anna looks perfectly cared for, and the mother is obviously desperate to do anything to help her beautiful young daughter with this incurable disease. So, if you had formed a negative opinion of the mother in the baths, it is time to start thinking about how differently you would be acting if you had a beautiful young daughter with an incurable disease and that, barring a miracle, you were going to have to bury before too much longer. What wouldn’t you promise God? What wouldn’t you do?
[UPDATE – I have discovered that the proper term for the large metal racks used to burn brulières and that they are tended by an organization of feutiers. I will continue to prefer ‘candle shrine’ instead of the French]
We see Christine has been observing this transaction taking place to her left with great interest. Maria, from out of the shot, places a lit candle on Christine’s behalf in the rack in the foreground to the left. Christine turns her head to look at it.
Oh look, a candle has appeared in front of me. Many reviewers on Netflix complain about the very slow pacing of the film – and it is slow – but the director Jessica Hausner has paced the film like this deliberately to give you the time to think about all of this, to look, and observe – before it is swept away down stream.
You see, Christine is an observer, almost completely passive, what else can she actually do? not much. She can comment of course, she could join the Greek chorus with the two Biddies, but what she has learned to do, or maybe it’s just her nature, is to look, to observe and to think. She’s not a ton of laughs either, probably one reason why Maria starts to grow bored with her, but she is actually fairly kind and polite, and modest; as opposed to the small man, the malade in the electric wheel chair played by Martin Habacher, who has developed a rather extroverted personality to compensate for his disability. Interestingly, Mr. Habacher in real life chose the extroverted route and is a Vienneser blogger and actor who likes to blog on the subject on how [relatively] easy it is to be disabled these days, and cruises around town with a video camera making videos for his blog.
So, one more very important [one of the most important actually] ways to start looking at characters in this film is to figure out which characters are the one who are observant of what is going on around them, which ones take notice. There are a couple of them, when something happens, they are always near by and mark what is transpiring. More on this point later.
We see Maria reach down, unlock the brakes on Christine’s chair and wheel her away.
The candle, standing alone by itself, along with hundreds of others, continues to burn, long after the pilgrim has departed. The prayer candle is an interesting technological appliance for consciousness multiplication. Set the intention with a prayer, light the candle and the intention continues to operate without human intervention till it burns out – and it kind of does work – if for no other reason than everyone else walking by will buy into the fact that because these candles are burning there these prayer intentions are in effect. Its really interesting that we can have this kind of mutual agreement; which makes the Kurgan’s behavior in Highlander snuffing out prayer candles so shocking.
We see Christina look away and look around herself as Maria wheels her off.
Oh, I guess I’m going now. Get wheeled around enough and I guess you get used to it.
There is also some organization, behind the scenes, keeps the whole prayer candle operation running, all day, every day, year after year. It’s an impressive number of candles, that go up in smoke every day at Lourdes, tons.
INT. HOSPICE-LOBBY – EVENING
We see the core group of the pilgrims gathered in a circle in the hospice lobby in front of the neon Lady of Lourdes, holding a prayer service.
M. HRUBY Usually I am alone. I pray that I receive some care and attention here. THE GROUP Lord, hear our voices raised in prayer. YOUNG MAN WITH WALKER Lord, my fiancée left me after my motorbike accident. Let me find a new fiancée who is better able to handle my disability. THE GROUP Lord, hear our voices raised in prayer. CHRISTINE Lord, I sometimes feel my life is passing me by. I feel 'inutile' [useless]. Please help me. THE GROUP Lord, hear our voices raised in prayer. MME. CARRÉ [looking at Christine] ...our voices raised in prayer.
Every pilgrim, every malade is there for an individual reason. Our assumption you start with as viewer is that if you are at Lourdes you are there hoping for some kind of a miraculous cure. Not one of three malades here, not one of them is asking to be cured, though its probably fair to say they wouldn’t mind. Herr Hruby and the young man with the walker are asking for much more mundane assistance, Christine for something much more subtle, meaning.
Sometimes, la langue française is exactly the way you want to hear those brain waves transmitted, even if your an American. Christine is starting to open up. Notice the depth of the sentiment of our girl with the red rain-hat. What she is expressing is something many of us feel, not just the handicapped. I understand her completely, “Inutile…” what a powerful word. What are the standards that we should place upon ourselves for what our utility is worth? What if we cannot meet our own expectations for what a life – our life – should be? Expectations, it seems can be ‘logolytic’, dissolving of meaning.
The girl has left the gate, there is no stopping her now. Or, maybe it’s that she has entered the temple and is now on her way to the sanctum sanctorum. Of course that is the gateless gate.
This reminds me of some words from another 19th century French girl saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, the little flower of heaven, [the first saint to start speaking to me personally, BTW]:
“Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering these little flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
Personally, I’ve probably failed completely at this, but they worth keeping in mind with our protagonist Christine.
My personal ‘issue’ with Catholicism is just this little bit here, the habitual, automatic response to certain cues like the: Lord, hear our voices… I just cringe inside every time I hear it happen, don’t know why, its actually a pretty potent practice. Other than that I’m fine with most things Catholic, more so than most brands of Protestantism, oddly. It must be some deeply personal methylation pattern on my DNA, not sure if its the French codons or the German ones, they’re always at war with each other.
Father Nigl, doesn’t seem to be particularly engaged with the process here.
We see the group in circle, hands clasped in prayer singing.
THE GROUP [singing] Lord, stay with us, for it is towards evening....
INT. HOSPICE-REFECTORY – NIGHT
We see Christine’s table from our familiar point of view over Christine’s shoulder: Christine, Maria, M. Hruby and his helper the pretty Sonja, and all the other pilgrims seated for dinner. We see the two handsome, young Maltesers Max and Frank approach the table.
FRANK [to Sonja] We're going for a drink later. Want to come? SONJA Yes, agreed. MARIA [glancing at Max] Maybe... MAX [to Maria] I bet Kuno will come too! KUNO [approaching table, holding pamphlets] We'll see. [steps to table, looking at M. Hruby] Well, are you enjoying yourselves?
We see Kuno glance at everyone sitting, nodding his head.
We see both Christine and Maria giving Kuno a very appreciative glance. Christine in particular is bright eyed and smiling.
CHRISTINE [chiming in] Yes! We met on the trip to Rome. eh? Didn't we?
We see Kuno turn to respond to Christine with a friendly smile.
KUNO [smiles] Yes, of course. [turns to dismiss himself] Well, enjoy yourselves.
We see Kuno turn and start to walk away.
The snail has come out of her house, but Kuno seems ambivalent. Does he actually remember Christine in Rome or is he downplaying the event? Not clear. Christine is not done with Kuno though!
CHRISTINE - V.O. Thanks.
We see Christine, napkin tucked into her collar, with Maria holding a spoonful of soup ready to feed her.
CHRISTINE - CONT. [as Kuno walks away] In fact, I prefer the cultural trips.
We see Christine smile and look down shyly.
We see Kuno turn back to address Christine
KUNO [matter of factly] Everywhere is different.
We see Christine, with her bright smile. Maria is still holding the spoonful of soup, but is giving Kuno an appreciative look again.
CHRISTINE [smiling] Yes.
We see Christine look down again.
This point marks a shift in the movie. In terms of character development, Maria becomes aware of her rivalry with Christine for the affections of Kuno, everything starts to change between them after this, which opens up a lot of new possibilities.
Interestingly, it is Christine who acts on her feelings first – what does she have to lose? She is beginning to come out of her shell a little. She is making a willful act, expressing her own agency, even though the only tools she has under her own control is her voice and a smile.
This also brings up an issue that I have been writing about recently over at ReadabilityTest, which is the idea that people who ‘ordinary’ or able ‘bodied people’ think of as somehow ‘disabled’ do actually have thoughts and desires of their own that may revolve around the more ‘able’, meaning them. It’s very common, even for basically good people to objectify the disabled by disallowing the notion that they may have these kinds of desires, or more subtly that the handicapped shouldn’t have those kinds of desires. Of course if you have actually hung around the disabled or developmentally handicapped you’ll learn that they have their own set of ideas about these issues, love, desire and sex. As my buddy Phi quipped on our first viewing:
The wheelchair is no barrier to amours.
Kuno is being very well behaved, in a gentlemanly way, he is deliberately not engaging the flirtatiousness of either of the younger women. What ever his feelings on the subject may be he certainly isn’t showing it, which is entirely appropriate. His marital status is unclear, he is wearing a big honking ring on his ring finger, but nobody seems to know if he is married or not, certainly no wife is in evidence. Kuno is in this situation, the pilgrimage, a para-professional and is acting that way, for him to get involved in a dalliance, even superficially with one of the other pilgrims, would be very inappropriate. There is an old expression in the business world which covers this situation, “Personal warmth, Professional distance”. Kuno seems to be getting this right – or – is he is also being a little noncommittal?
INT. HOSPICE-LOBBY – NIGHT
We see Father Nigl, Herr Oliveti and Frau Oliveti are seated around a low table in the lobby playing cards. Three half finished glasses of wine are set on the table. If you look around, this seems to be a particularly hard drinking group of pilgrims – though not so hard drinking as Chaucer. We see one of the Accompagnateurs approach the group from the edge of the shot with glasses and a jug of Lourdes water in hand.
HELPER [cups in hand] Do you want some Lourdes water?
We see Fr. Nigl looks up. All decline politely. Helper exits. The players continue their game.
MME. CARRÉ - V.O. Excuse me, father.
We see Fr. Nigl fold his card of hands, and turn his complete attention to Mme. Carré as she enters the shot. Herr Oliveti looks on with interest.
MME. CARRÉ - CONT Excuse me, father. May I ask you something? FATHER NIGL Of course. MME. CARRÉ I've heard that one can be healed even physically here. It does happen... miraculous healing. FATHER NIGL I believe, of course, that God can perform miracles. But only if we open our hearts fully to his grace. We must say "Yes," to him. MME. CARRÉ And what exactly must we do? FATHER NIGL Firstly, our souls must be healed. Only then can the body be healed.
Father Nigl is like most Catholic priests I have known; a very nice person, patient, kind, personable, thoughtful, and very attentive to the people he is addressing. He is however, still a Catholic priest, so if you think that you are going to get something different than a Catholic answer from him you are going to be disappointed. In this case he does give a ‘fair’, but unsatisfying answer. He can’t give Mme. Carré a satisfying answer, but he’s not going to snow her either. If you are hoping for an answer beyond the Catholic answer in this movie, you’ll probably have to provide it for yourself.
Monsieur Oliveti watches the scene with mixed interest and boredom. He’s being polite, remaining quiet and sitting on his hands, but later on he does take on the role of gadfly to the priest.
Mme. Carré is also very Catholic, very devout, pious in the less cynical, Latin, sense of the word – dutiful. She also seems to be fairly literalistic or materialistic. It’s an interesting question to ask though, on who’s behalf is she really inquiring? Her own? or somebody else? Christine? She is a pilgrim, so it seems, not one of the malades, even though she shares a room with Christine. It’s not clear why this is. However, she never makes any complaints about her health, and other than being old and a stiff in the joints and doesn’t seem to be particularly in need of a miracle herself.
As my buddy Phi observed after watching this bit together for the first time, “If you want instructions on what to do, what you are asking for is a therapy, not a miracle.” There is a theme running throughout the film, or an open question, what exactly IS a miracle? who decides? who deserves one? how do you figure it out? Good questions all – the answers are all personal.
There are also themes of sanctity and sainthood running throughout this film. Cécile, as a character seems to be carrying this issue rather overtly, she certainly seems to be striving towards saintliness, but is she succeeding? Another question to ask is Mme. Carré becoming the crypto-saint of the film?
INT. HOSPICE-LOBBY – NIGHT
We see Maria and Christine sitting at one of the low tables in the lobby. Maria is slouched back in her chair talking about herself. Christine is sitting as ever in her wheelchair, hands claw-like folded in her lap. She seems withdrawn again. Bored? Ill? We also see Kuno sitting at the bar in the background with a drink lost in thought.
MARIA ...I felt a bit lost at first, but now I enjoy the volunteer work.
We see Maria lean forward to take a drink from her glass, but she absentmindedly forgets to offer Christine a drink from her sippy cup of Lourdes water on the table.
We see Christine seem to be genuinely unwell, very pale, struggling internally not to pass out.
In the background Max and Frank walk over to the bar next to Kuno and look over towards Maria.
MARIA - CONT. And its for a change. Usually I go skiing during the holidays with my friends, but sometimes I miss the meaning behind it contrary to the charity work. It's important for me to have a goal or meaning in life.
We see Christine struggle to become little more engaged with what Maria is saying and gives a weak smile.
In the background we see the boys at the bar joking with each other. Frank give a little wave to catch Maria’s attention.
We see Christine start to nod off.
CLOSE ON: MARIA
We see Maria give Max and Frank a broad smile, as the boys joke with her. Then she turns her head away shyly, smiling.
REVERSE SHOT: THE BAR
We see the boys at the bar joking with each other, and Kuno sitting down. We see Kuno glance over towards Maria with a slight smile, then looks over towards Christine. We see him, look then look again more closely.
REVERSE SHOT: CHRISTINE
We see Christine from over her shoulder, she has nodded off completely. As we watch, a long strand of milky drool drips from the corner of her mouth and onto her shirt.
We see Mme. Carré come into view, opposite Christine, looking with great concern, but standing back a little ways, arms hanging.
MME. CARRÉ [to Christine] Are you all right?
CUT TO: THE LOBBY
We see in a wider shot the developing scene around Christine as she sits with her head slumped forward in her wheelchair. Maria remains leaning forward in her seat. Mme. Carré is energized and concerned but remains standing on the opposite side of the table from Christine. In the room heads start to turn. Kuno come around from the bar
KUNO What's happening?
We see Kuno kneel down at Christine’s side and put a hand on her wheelchair.
KUNO-CONT. [to Maria] What's the matter with her? MARIA I don't know.
Kuno is starting to look like, he’s not the right guy. In a crisis, he doesn’t seem to know what to do. He’s concerned but holds back. He is afraid to actually touch the girl.
CUT TO: MARIA
We see Maria as she comes around one of the rooms mirrored columns. She is quiet but watching with deep concern.
CUT TO: THE CARD PLAYERS
We see the three card players: Fr. Nigl, Monsieur and Madame Oliveti stop their game, and watch.
MME. OLIVETI It's upsetting. M. OLIVETI The tide buries us all in the end.
In any spiritual organization, or any spiritual activity or setting, one of the important things to do is find out who the real high-level operators are, who are the people who are paying attention to what is happening and who knows what to do when things go wrong – and – are effective. I am reminded of a quote from Ursula Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea:
“A act of great wizardry is not worked without arousing such men, and they had ways of coming very swiftly when need called, though none had been so swift as the Archmage.”
This is more or less the way it works in the real world, any halfway descent group will have a couple of these people around, often fewer than you would hope unfortunately. They know, almost in advance when something happens, react appropriately, and effectively. It can be instructive to look for the high-level operators, in life as well as the movies: who is paying attention, who’s carrying the ball, and who drops it.
[Interesting, I just noticed both Ursula Le Guin and Saint Bernadette Soubirous, both have ‘bear’ names.]
Its a little like yachting. It’s all about anticipating and catching the next shift. This is a really talented sailors: Charlie Barr, Dennis Connor, Russell Coutts, all of these people have it, the ability to see into a very chaotic future and know when the next important windshift was about to happen and be able to use their skills to their advantage when it did.
It is also worthwhile to note that these people are often not the people one would expect, the people in authority. Which brings me to another useful concept that is very old, the ‘janitor’. In classical Roman mythology and religiosity the god Janus [Latin: Ianus] is the god of beginnings and endings, transitions and time, thence also of doors, gates, and is from where we get the month of January. Janus is usually depicted as two faced, looking into the past as well as the future. Typically you would find a Janus statue or head over the lintel of a temple’s entrance looking both in and out. This is all common knowledge; what is uncommon knowledge it that there was a personification of Janus in the temple as well, the ‘Janitor’. The temple ‘Janitor’ served many of the same functions B.C. as the lower class, under-paid person with that same job title today, that is he swept up around the place, fixed things and was the keeper of the keys. In an age when the priest and priestesses of the temples might be political appointees or involved in the kinds of petty intrigues that surround such organizations, it was the Janitor, who was the one who often kept the true mysteries of the temple when nobody else could remember. To refer to Earthsea mythos again, the character of the Master Doorkeeper, is a Janus/janitor character, he keeps the door of the temple/school, but is generally unacknowledged as being one of the nine Masters of the place, at least by the inmates.
So, Mme. Carré as janitor, maybe? Somebody? Who?
As an aside, I can’t help but notice that there are several large mirrored columns in the room; which makes for some interesting juxtapositions of reflected imaged of characters. Probably also a little tricky to shoot in this room and keep the camera, crew, and lights out of the shot.
INT. HOSPICE-CHRISTINE’S ROOM – NIGHT-CONT.
We see Christine, looking a little peaked, being wheeled back into her hospital room along side her bed.
CÉCILE [to Christine] You gave us quite a scare. [looking at Maria] I'll handle this.
We see Cécile take Christine and wheel her into the lavatory. We remain outside with Maria, waiting.
CHRISTINE - V.O. Pardon. CÉCILE - V.O. Don't worry about it.
We see Cécile reemerge, retrieve some adult diapers from off screen then return to the lavatory and shut the door behind her. Maria stands there looking a little useless.
Cécile, possibly in the name of her patient’s comfort, privacy and feelings, tends to micro-manage a little. Looking at Maria’s reactions, maybe Christine isn’t the only one in the room who has feelings of being ‘inutile’ to deal with. Another example of Hausner’s deliberate pacing, she leaves us and Maria, hanging out outside the lavatory long enough for us to get a real sense of having to wait. Many, or most, directors are so afraid of boring the audience that they won’t ever let anyone stand idle for more than two seconds, before cutting to the next car chase, Hausner goes half a minute. It’s easy to do dramatic and exciting. It’s easy to put the adrenal glands in a Vise-Grip. Slow is hard.
We see, once again, Cécile tucking Christine in for the night. Same degree of attention and grace, same degree of skill. Maria is a little more on her own recognizance tonight though. Cécile raises the bed up again, but closer to the desired height than last night.
CHRISTINE That's fine. Thanks.
We see Cécile, once more, gently arrange Christine’s hair. Maria starts to head for the door.
CÉCILE And the prayer? MARIA - V.O. Pardon.
We see both ladies kneel at the foot of the bed opposite each other once again.
For Cécile the procedure really isn’t complete without the prayer. I agree, its very powerful medicine, and powerful imagery.
MUSIC CUE: [organ music]
CÉCILE / MARIA Je vous salue Marie, pleine de grâce. Le Seigneur est avec vous. Vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femmes, et Jésus, le fruit de vos entrailles, est béni. Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, Priez pour nous, pauvres pécheurs, maintenant et à l'heure de notre mort. Amen
We see Cécile cross herself, then get up and move to the head of the bed to attend to Christine one last time before leaving for the night.
INT. HOSPICE-CHRISTINE’S ROOM – LATE NIGHT
We see Christine from the foot of the bed. The only light in the room seems to be coming from Mme. Carré‘s bed casting Christine in a half-light. Christine is awake and pensive, staring off into space. Her arms, folded on her breasts rise and fall with her breath. She blinks and swallows, glances around the room, searching…
Welcome to the long nights of Christine’s life. There are some very long nights of the soul for her. Can’t get up, can’t roll over. Can’t get a drink of water. You are a complete prisoner in your body, you can only lie there like Vlad Dracula and wait for the morning. You could probably say something and wake up Mme. Carré, but that would be impolite, wouldn’t it? Besides, if you are truly dependent on others care, it is probably a risky strategy to be too demanding, survival depend on people being willing to take care of you.
We get a good thirty seconds of this shot, nothing really happens, we get to watch a half-minute of Christine’s interior life going by in solitude and hopefully notice our interior life going by at the same time. How alone are we both in this? Can we, in some meaningful way ‘be’ with someone who is an imaginary character who was filmed years ago? Are we alone when we long for the Other?
Suddenly the door, which we have not seen previously, opens and light and noise from the hallway floods into the room. We see Maria poke her head into the room, laughing and giggling. There is the sound of a boy out in the hall
We see Maria disappear down the hall, leaving the door ajar. Giggles trail along behind.
How rude. At least somebody is getting laid tonight, though.
We see Christine again, laid out in her bed, awake. The light is different, we see moonlight coming in through the window lighting her more evenly and from the opposite side as before. We see Christine look about, resignedly.
END DAY ONE OF THE MOVIE
My goodness all of this 14,000 words and only the first 24:50 seconds of the movie. This seems to have become a mad quest of an epic proportion already. I hope somebody other than me reads all of this eventually.
See you all on the other side.
- * See? a multi-level pun, but by a master, you tell me which one
- †Neal Gabler, historian, Imaginary Witness: Holywood and the Holocaust, 2004
- ‡ Annette Insdorf, film scholar, Imaginary Witness: Holywood and the Holocaust, 2004