Saturday, 27 March 2010

lourdes (w&d jessica hausner)

The Austrians. If there was at some point in the long distant past a French vague, and at another a Korean, and of course the Danish, then is the moment of the Austrian new wave? And if so, what is it?

Austria's long been one of the more nebulous countries in Europe, from a British perspective at least. On the border between East and West. Affluent, Germanic, right-wing, quiet. Not a lot seems to happen in Austria. It's terra incognito, unless you're a skier or a culture vulture. Or Peter Morgan. In other words it's a mysterious land, and all the signs portend that it's a land with an unhealthy, quasi British, undercurrent. The conjoined talents of Freud, Shiele, Klimt, Musil (the Musil of Young Torless) suggest a society what might be called an unquietude, something developed in the work of Bernhard and Handke.

Recent Austrian cinema seems to want to emphasise this point. All of Haneke's earlier films can be read as an exploration of a society which seems to have lost its moral compass in the post-modern capitalist maze. Jelenik's literature explores a similar vein, and lately Seidl has followed suit. This all helps to set up the context for Hausner's French language film, set in the city of its title, which describes the onset of a miracle which occurs when Christine, a cerebral palsy sufferer, visits on a pilgrimage.

Hausner's opening shot is a beautifully composed image of a dining room, which is gradually taken over by the visiting pilgrims. The whole film possesses this studied composition, lending a gravitas to what is a very simple story. Hausner uses her camera to constantly insinuate that there's something else going on, ( a similar device to that used by Haneke), the stillness possessing a kind of virtual movement, something accentuated by the careful composition. The viewer can never take anything in this world for granted, neither can they ever assume that what they're witnessing is as it is perceived to be.

Whilst the film is constructed around the apparent miracle, it is more an investigation of this odd society than a treatise on religion. The slightly bitchy women who speculate that Christine's miracle isn't really a miracle; the jealous volunteer who looks after her; the raffish male helpers who drink and flirt. At times it feels like almost an affectionate study, until the camera catches moments that disturb: the mother jealous of Christine's gift, the collapsed nun whose head is bald. The slightly grotesque closing scene, like something out of a Grosz sketch, only adds to the unease.

Hausner's film is in some ways gentler, less dramatic than Haneke's terse psychodramas or Seidl's operatic examinations of discontent, but in the end, in spite of Sylvie Testud's moving and engaging portrayal of Christine, it still seems to fit into a disquieting Austrian tradition which may or may not be the product of spurious intellectual imaginations.

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