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Ownership of The Arts Voyager & Dance Insider is available FREE to a new owner who will keep the present editor on staff part-time and help him get a carte de sejour to return to France, plus provide health insurance in France. For details please contact editor & publisher Paul Ben-Itzak.

The Arts Voyager, 7-22: A course in miracles
Essays in direction at Anthology Film Archives

Sylvie Testud in Jessica Hausner's "Lourdes." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

Two quirky films on view this month at the persistently, even heroically non-conformist Anthology Film Archives, as it almost single-handedly maintains New York's otherwise long-lost title as a cradle of avant-garde cinema among a sea of pop culture altars that shows no sign of abating, demonstrate how the art house cinema founded more than 40 years ago by Jonas Mekas continues to showcase films that in one manner or another confound expectations.

Closing this afternoon, Jessica Hausner's 2011 "Lourdes" devolves on one level as purely manipulative, a less philosophically weighty meditation along the lines of Albert Camus's "The Stranger," in which the hero's fate provokes a base reaction from the community which reflects a cynical vision of humanity. In this case, when paraplegic Christine (Sylvie Testud) making a pilgrimage to Lourdes in southwest France, not expecting any miracles but simply content to exit from her hole, suddenly starts moving her arms and walking, those around her quick show their resentment. The volunteer who was happy to flirt with her when it made him feel charitable (Bruno Todeschini) literally drops her minutes after she invites him to dance; the dowdy pension neighbor who has supplanted the frothy, boy-crazy volunteer nurse in pushing Christine's wheel-chair around can't wait to get her back into it when Christine falls; a pair of nattering old maids ask the attending priest whether it's fair that the member of their party with the least faith was selected for the miracle. Besides the priest and Christine, the only character who emerges clean, in a sub-pot that shadows the central story, is the group's head nurse who -- we learn when she stumbles and her long hair turns out to be a whig covering a chemo-decimated scalp -- is herself in the final stages of cancer.

Otherwise, the problem with the other characters' negative, selfish reaction to Christine's good news is that it's all too obvious, the manipulative heavy hand of the director straining credulity. Or, as Jean-Francois Rauger wrote last year in Le Monde:

"The director's view of these personages is at the same time what gives the film its originality but also what limits it. There is in effect something mechanical (about the film), conveyed by the coldness of the direction and a form of anti-direction, re-enforced by the fact that all the secondary personages (played by actors who, like the director, are Austrian) were dubbed post-production in French. As if the director herself took guilty pleasure from this inhumane humanity."

In effect, if Hausner would like us to believe that Christine's support network quietly rejoices when she falls, it's the director's own smug cynicism which leaves the most bitter taste.

So why, then, do I say the film confounds expectations? The real miracle of "Lourdes" is the anti-bravura performance of its star. Distinguished recently by bombastic star turns playing very public heroines like Louise Michel, a hero of the Paris Commune exiled after its defeat, and Francoise Sagan, the late celebrated author of "Bonjour Tristesse," Testud here in effect says just that -- "Hello, sadness" -- under-playing Christine, with a minimum of indicating, heart-string tugging, and pathos for the first part of the film, when her movements are restricted. (On location, when Hausner had her moving through an actual crowd in Lourdes, anonymous with a red bonnet pulled over her head, Testud kept to the chair even when the cameras weren't rolling, telling the Toulouse daily Depeche du Midi last year: "Ambulant people ((or, as Testud described them in French, "Les valides")), let me pass," not realizing who she was. "I was glued to my wheel-chair. I didn't move a centimeter, and I sensed to what degree it was terrible to not have usage of one's members. It would have been rotten if I got up to drink a glass of water, saying, 'Kidding! I'm just making a film.'" Even her remote smile is more fragile than angelic. And when the money moment of pathos arrives -- after Christine has fallen and, tentatively standing on the edge of the dance floor, finally sits in the wheelchair held by her 'helper' -- Testud keeps Christine's emotions impenetrable, leaving it to the viewer to decide if she is happily resigned to her mobility being perhaps fleeing, or... defeated.

A scene from Goncalo Tocha's "It's the Earth, not the Moon." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Oh that Hausner would have taken the approach of Goncalo Tocha, who arrived in Corvo, the tiniest of the archipelago making up the Azores, with no pre-conceptions about what he'd find, determined simply to talk to as many as the island's 440 inhabitants as he could, and let them tell their stories with absolutely no directorial coaxing for his three-hour documentary "It's the Earth, not the Moon," which screened recently at Anthology. Thus we meet a man who immigrated to the island because he wanted to get away from his life, and Corvo was the farthest point in Europe, located as it is in the middle of the Atlantic; a woman who knits a bonnet for the director, which we learn, at the same time as him as their interview unfolds, is not of local origin but modeled after caps a distant relative brought back from Scotsmen encountered on a North American ship. The village's 80-something second oldest resident takes us to an overgrown pillbox perched on the side of a cliff overlooking the sea that was the whale-watch, whose job it was is to man. But there's also a disco night at the cafe with horridly tacking flashing lights, imported cows being hoisted out of arriving ships with rope tethers, and looking confused about it, and a customs official who confesses, more than once, that he destroyed, for no apparent reason, 40 years of logs which would have made Tocha's job of recounting Corvo's history a lot easier. This calamity turns out to be a boon; absent a written history, the director has to get it directly from the source, successfully cajoling an isolated people to open up. Unlike "Lourdes," here we get the story without too much directorial intervention, making "It's the Earth not the Moon" the more natural and infinitely richer of the two films.

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