Jessica Hausner talks about LOURDES


«That’s the perspective that interests me about religion, this dealing with a higher power that apparently doesn’t intend to protect, help and make sure that everything turns out all right.»Jessica Hausner talks about Lourdes.


In a statement you claim that Lourdes is a cruel fairy tale, a daydream, a nightmare. In any case it’s a story far removed from everyday life. Was the world of the irrational, the belief in miracles a decisive aspect that inspired you to make your third full-length film?

Jessica Hausner: To be precise, I’d have to say that the theme of believing in miracles inspired me to make this film in part, but not so much the belief itself as the hope that something that completely reshuffles the cards can happen in your life. In difficult situations in particular people hope that everything will turn out all right. Miracles are just an extreme expression of this hope. As a setting Lourdes provides an excellent example of this, and the film is of course a parable. Although it’s set in Lourdes and deals with the sick and the crippled, who are hoping for a miracle, the film’s also about all of us, even if we’re not in a wheelchair. We all have an underlying hope inside which cannot really be explained. We live our life and try to find a meaning in it and happiness, ignoring the fact that it will come to an end.

The film also involves the basic question of meaning, the unshakeable hope that things will get better. Does Lourdes, as a destination for pilgrims, serve as metaphor for you where all these connotations are united in the most dense form?
Jessica Hausner: The thing about the place that interests me most is that people claim in all seriousness that miracles happen there and term them as such. There’s a doctor’s office there where cases are examined in order to create a scientific basis. Then there are criteria that people who are healed through miracles have to fulfill for the church to recognize them. I thought this contradiction was so interesting, the desire to explain an event that’s strange and irrational.

Did you also want to thematize religion or a certain interpretation of religion, specifically its irrational aspect?
Jessica Hausner: That’s an interesting way of putting it, because it makes me think of the aspect that, in the course of doing research, I read parables from the Bible and found many paradoxical, irrational stories. The main thing is not demonstrating that all you have to do to be healed is pray a lot. The Bible’s stories are often much stranger. Someone doesn’t want to be healed but is anyway, or Jesus does something unjust and illogical. On the contrary, the point is accepting the fact that there’s something ominous, paradoxical, that’s somewhat unjust, but in any case from a higher power, that you can’t escape and that has to be acknowledged. That’s the perspective that interests me about religion, this dealing with a higher power that apparently doesn’t intend to protect, help and make sure that everything turns out all right. That’s obviously not the point.

A great deal of Lourdes is set in interiors, inside closed rooms. The first time we go outside is after the miracle takes place, and even then it’s a threatening nature with steep drop-offs. How did you create the world of this pilgrimage?
Jessica Hausner: I went on three or four pilgrimages to Lourdes myself when I started thinking about setting the film there. At first I was shocked by meeting so many sick people in one place, and this initial impression changed my mind for the time being because I was afraid that the film could turn into a social drama. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to find a way to visually get to the level of a parable. Then I went on another pilgrimage, one organized by the Knights of St. John, and that suddenly added a social aspect that interested me. And these original uniforms were incredibly helpful for finding an aesthetic and an ironic level.
The Knights of St. John is an order where people from a relatively high social class do charitable work out of an aristocratic Catholic mentality. This creates an interesting contrast, where elegant ladies wearing pearls push social outcasts in wheelchairs who live on welfare and lead lonely lives in poverty. Apart from the philosophical themes of happiness and hope, Lourdes also involves the social aspect, in the sense of “What role do I play in society? Where can I find my place and the recognition that goes with it? What do I have to do for that?” Christine, who’s in a wheelchair, is an in-between who doesn’t belong in either one place or the other.

The pilgrims are a really grim bunch who demonstrate little open Christianity. Do they represent a kind of opposite pole to Christine?
Jessica Hausner: Not really, because Christine isn’t “pure” herself. Her only reason for going along on the pilgrimage is because she doesn’t have any other opportunity to get away from home, and in the end she doesn’t know what to think about being healed. This involves the discrepancy of what society makes of me and what I should be like and what other characteristics I have. That does the most to reveal Cécile’s character; she really only lives for the great other, for the higher power. In my opinion Christine on the other hand represents this funny weed that does its own thing, for no particular reason other than a pragmatic desire to walk again, and she suddenly stands up, though not due to a revelation, and walks and gets the guy on top of that.

Did you also want to cast a critical gaze at these individuals and what they represent?
Jessica Hausner: I think this involves my ambivalent attitude with regard to describing fate, which I consider unmerciful. There are moments of happiness, charity, sacrifice, and the fact that an individual is good. At the same time that varies a great deal, a minor change in a situation is all that’s needed to make everything different. And I try to explain that: Someone’s healed through a miracle, but someone else isn’t happy about it. People are envious, which isn’t totally unjustified, because they ask the reasonable question of why it was Christine and not somebody else. It’s not right, because Cécile, the only one to devote her attention to good deeds, is the one who dies. At the beginning Cécile isn’t likeable, but when we notice that she’s sick, that can be seen differently. I’m interested in the two faces and people’s ambivalence – today you’re healed and tomorrow you’re sick, today he’s nice and charitable and tomorrow he talks behind your back. Somebody’s aggressive one day and the next you realize that they didn’t have any other choice.

You called Christine an in-between, would you say she’s the main figure?
Jessica Hausner: It was relatively difficult to communicate who Christine was intended to be through the screenplay and the direction, because I consciously avoided putting a spin on her while writing the script. I definitely wanted to make clear that neither the power of love nor autosuggestion are involved. Faith doesn’t move mountains, and a certain number of baths doesn’t produce divine providence. I wanted to avoid having a particular logic, a satisfying explanation for the miracle. That wasn’t easy. Another possible variation would have been that a non-believer is healed and then joins the church as a result – I didn’t want that either. This led to a lot of discussions. Sylvie Testud, who played the part of Christine, understood it very well. She conveyed this ironic level where someone who doesn’t believe is healed and then strengthened in their non-belief, instead just hoping the healing lasts. She completely understood the pragmatic joke behind that. During her speech at the end Christine tries to find the right words and makes an effort to say what people want to hear. At the same time we can see that she doesn’t have a clue as to what she should say.

The film grammar consists of long, highly precise shots, many of them static. Basically two words come to my mind for the way in which the images are composed: choreography and geometry.
Jessica Hausner: Yes, I see it exactly the same way. That’s because I always see the characters in contrast to their task, their obligation. I have a strong sense of these characters like in a game of chess, what’s their role in this process? The question of personality is a theme that interests me more and more. That often makes me think of Ibsen’s example of the onion, that you can reveal a personality layer by layer, because they consist of several shells, but there’s nothing inside. The individual evaporates because it consists of aspects and a large number of lives, some of them fake, that come together to comprise a single one.

The film deals with a delicate theme that’s regarded with a great deal of reverence, and in doing so sometimes demonstrates subversive humor, often completely unexpectedly. This is an element which hasn’t appeared very often in your previous work.
Jessica Hausner: Yes, I think that the humor’s more obvious this time than in my earlier films. I also thought about Jacques Tati a lot. It might also be a matter of the genre. Hotel was in the style of the mystery genre, and Lourdes, if it’s influenced by anything, then for the most part by light black comedies that try to address the end of life.

How did you choose Sylvie Testud for the part of Christine?
Jessica Hausner: After a certain point it became certain that the main cast around the protagonist would be French in order to give the story coherence. As sometimes happens, I thought about Sylvie Testud at the very beginning, then I met Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi at the audition. For a long time it looked like she would play the part, which I thought would have been great and exciting. She declined in the end though, and suddenly there was a hole because a lot of the other parts around her had already been cast. Then I thought about Sylvie again, we contacted her and things fell into place quickly after that, and it was obvious that she was right for the part.

What did directing in two languages entail?
Jessica Hausner: Actually, it was a lot of fun. Part of the time I spoke English with the French actors, and there were few dialogues where both languages were used. During shooting everything went smoothly. Problems arose during post-production, during dubbing, while smoothing out both languages for two different versions. I was overwhelmed by how difficult that was, and realizing what live sound really means. That shows you how great and unmistakable a voice is.

In all three of your full-length films there’s a certain focus on a female main figure. If we draw an arc from Irene in Hotel to Christine in Lourdes, where would you see development between the two?
Jessica Hausner: Definitely in that Irene is in a sense still in her wheelchair, while Christine gets out of hers and walks. I feel that that’s the difference compared to my previous film, which is actually about someone being swallowed up. Irene is sitting in a trap and can’t escape, and in a sense she offers herself up to this fate. And while in Lourdes Christine might be cooler and more naive, she manages, though for just a short time, to get what she wants.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
September 2009