"Lourdes" isn't about to reveal its true colors anytime soon.

Either a subtly subversive black comedy, a deeply spiritual portrait of physical rebirth or a whole lot of nothing in a self-consciously arty package, “Lourdes” isn’t about to reveal its true colors anytime soon. The third feature (and first in French) by Austrian Jessica Hausner continues the extreme visual/emotional rigor of her 2004 “Hotel,” rather than the engaging characterization of her debut, “Lovely Rita,” as it follows a young handicapped woman undergoing treatment at a Pyrenees pilgrimage resort. Critical balm at fest showings should translate into limited B.O. resurrection in the real world.

Typically for Hausner, her main character, Christine (Sylvie Testud), is given almost no background — she’s just one of a group of people staying at a swish modern clinic run by Order of Malta nurses at Lourdes. Paralyzed in her legs and arms, she appears to have been confined to a wheelchair for most of her life, though she remains mentally alert and takes care of her appearance. Her current pilgrimage to Lourdes is just the latest in a series of trips.

In beautifully lit, clinically precise setups (by ace Austrian lenser-producer Martin Gschlacht), the minutiae of Christine’s time at the clinic — supervised by head nurse Cecile (Elina Lowensohn) and Christine’s personal nurse, Maria (Lea Seydoux) — are shown in ritualistic detail before she’s wheeled out the next day, with hundreds of other hopefuls, to the main center.

The whole process, blending religious ceremony with taking the waters, lasts several days, during which time Christine bonds with the younger Maria. But for Maria, it’s just a job, and she prefers to hang out with other volunteer nurses her own age, talk about men and schmooze with the male volunteers, especially handsome, mature Kuno (Bruno Todeschini).

As a result, Christine ends up forging a friendship with the rather severe, lonely Mme. Hartl (Gilette Barbier), who’s there for religious succor rather than physical healing. Then, one day, Christine seems suddenly cured, and able to pursue her own attraction to Kuno. But whether it’s a true miracle, and whether Kuno returns her feelings, have yet to be proven.

The real miracle of “Lourdes” is how Hausner and her small key cast maintain interest in Christine’s odyssey with almost nothing happening onscreen and minimal dialogue. Shafts of black humor regularly break though the pic’s cool surface, though not so frequently as to make Hausner’s intentions clear. Similarly, the whole religious paraphernalia of Lourdes is shown with a steady, unblinking eye that could be interpreted as respectful, factual or ironic.

Only via Maria’s character, who slides from dutiful care to off-duty relaxation — revealing an ordinary young woman beneath the severe Order of Malta work duds — does the film partly show its hand. Testud, though facially animated, gives little away about Christine’s attitude to the whole Lourdes machine; ditto Lowensohn as the cheerleading head nurse, forever jollying her group along like some kind of tour guide.

Source music, including extracts from religious compositions by Bach, provides a cozy wrapping for the whole film. Per production notes, Hausner gained permission to shoot at Lourdes after a year of meetings.

Lourdes

Austria-Germany-France

Production

A Coop99 Filmproduktion (Austria)/Essential Filmproduktion, Thermidor Filmproduktion (Germany)/Parisienne de Production (France) production, in association with Arte France Cinema, ZDF/Arte, with participation of ORF, TPS Star. (International sales: Coproduction Office, Paris.) Produced by Martin Gschlacht, Philippe Bober, Susanne Marian. Executive producers, Bruno Wagner, Isabell Wiegand. Directed, written by Jessica Hausner.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Martin Gschlacht; editor, Karina Ressler; production designer, Katharina Woeppermann; costume designer, Tanja Hausner; sound (Dolby Digital), Uve Haussig, Matthias Lempert, Bernhard Maisch. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 2009. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Sylvie Testud, Lea Seydoux, Bruno Todeschini, Elina Lowensohn, Gerhard Liebmann, Gilette Barbier, Linde Prelog, Heidi Baratta, Hubsi Kramar, Helga Illich. (French dialogue)

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