Jessica Hausner on 'Lourdes'

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'Lourdes' is a new film that takes us inside the French religious resort. Time Out meets its director, Jessica Hausner

Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s third film, ‘Lourdes’, is a drama set and shot at the famous pilgrimage site in the French foothills of the Pyrenees. Thirty-seven-year-old Hausner explains how she took inspiration from Jacques Tati and had to persuade a bishop to let her film at such a sacred Catholic site.

Did you spend a lot of time in Lourdes before going there to make the film?
‘In the beginning I went there with pilgrims – with people who had cancer. That was quite horrifying. After that first trip I was really shocked and thought I couldn’t make the film. It was terrible watching these people who will die very soon and who go there and pray and hope they will escape that. I could hardly bear it and thought it was too cruel for a film. I thought it would be social pornography or something like that. I didn’t want to do that.’

What changed your mind?
‘I took some time to find another entrance into the story. I went on another pilgrimage with the Order of Malta, a group of volunteers who are often quite rich people helping out the poor and sick. I thought that contrast gave me the possibility to make the story a bit deeper and wider. Also some humour emerges from this contrast. I think the humour comes from the fact that the film doesn’t identify victims or villains. I always imagined that I was a Japanese tourist who went to Lourdes and observed what was going on: it looks strange but there’s no one to blame.’

Who did you have to persuade to allow you to film?
‘The bishop of Lourdes is in charge of the sanctuaries and he decides what is allowed or not. They have quite a lot of film teams that make documentaries. But the most recent feature was about 20 years ago. They don’t trust feature films because they tend to make fun of Lourdes. I had to make them understand that my desire was not to make fun of Lourdes but to question faith and also the miracles. That was okay for them. They understood that it was serious and not simple ignorance. I got permission to make the film and then it was more about pragmatics – where and when to film.’

Did it come down to a conversation between you and the bishop?
‘Yes, and it came down to the fact that I tried to explain that a miracle is something ambiguous and I wanted to show in my film that someone is healed but you can never really be sure if it’s a miracle. I told him that I was going to ask questions but not give Catholic answers. He was fine with that. I think that Catholic thinkers themselves also know that miracles are ambiguous. It’s not something they can deny.’

Your film causes some amusing reactions. One visitor to our website said he was a Catholic and thought you were an atheist, but that if you were indeed an atheist, he wished more atheists would make films like this! So, are you an atheist?
‘Well, yes, I would say, yes. Yesterday I had a discussion with some students who studied theology and it came out from that conservation that maybe I am an atheist, but also there is this position called agnostic, which is quite close to me. It’s a little bit more open to the fact that you never know the truth. Usually I’m an atheist, but sometimes I weaken and become an agnostic.’

You ask questions about Lourdes, but you avoid all mockery.
‘I could have shown much more of the selling of little statues and the superficiality and everything that is annoying is Lourdes. But I thought: No, if I stress that too much, the film becomes smaller. I wanted to use the place as a stage for a fairy tale. So resisting easy jokes was an important thing. Also, I wanted to find a style that had some artificiality so that it wasn’t too much like a documentary and had a strong sense of design to it that made it feel more abstract.’

But I’ve read a few people say your film feels like a documentary. I don’t feel that at all. It’s far too strictly composed and the story too precise.
‘I’m glad you say that. I was quite astonished that people told me it looks like a documentary. I think what they mean is that you don’t get too much information about the biographies of the protagonists.’

Did you have any particular influences in mind?
‘I was definitely inspired by Jacques Tati. I was watching the movement of groups in his films. I think he was brilliant at that and he was excellent at leading the spectator from the foreground to the background of the frame and back again. I was watching his “Playtime” and got some inspiration from that. Also, Buñuel inspires me a lot, but especially for this film – sometimes he applies this black humour to Catholicism and that helped me develop the tone of the film.’

Read our review of 'Lourdes'

Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun



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