Christine (Sylvie Testud), the heroine of director Jessica Hausner's striking drama Lourdes, arrives in the Pyrenean resort of the title in a wheelchair, without the use of her arms or legs. Less obviously devout than some, it's not clear - as she's ferried from her auberge to take her daily cures - whether she's looking for a miracle, or just a sign that, contrary to all appearances, she's not alone in the world. As it happens, she gets both, and one of the questions Hausner is asking - both of her protagonist, and her audience - in this, her third feature, is this: how are you supposed to react to extraordinary events?
Christine is Hausner's entry point, her wheelchair a dramatic Trojan horse; the filmmaker's real interest - as signalled by its preeminence in the title - is the place of Lourdes itself, or rather the thriving support industry that has come to grow up around it: the sceptics and true believers passing through, those looking to make a quick buck and those who come in hope, the head nurse (former Hal Hartley muse Elina Löwensohn, as spookily pallid as ever) with reasons of her own for being there, the young volunteer (Léa Seydoux), who takes time out from pushing Christine around to seek a laying-on of hands with a hunky security guard; if nothing else, the film proposes the novel idea that people might go to Lourdes as they do to Sandals or Ayia Napa, to get laid.
Hausner has shot several documentaries, and Lourdes has the feel of an observance of some kind, quietly, patiently watching the wheelchairs parade across the screen. It's clear from all the smoke and pageantry (not to mention the teeming, undirectable crowds of extras) that some of the rituals and ceremonies Christine attends are very real, yet the camera's detachment is neither amused nor frowning. This may be a rare film to remain entirely ambivalent on the subject of faith: for all the florid organ music, tacky neon halos and prizes for Best Pilgrim the film encompasses, Hausner seems just as aware there might just be something in the way Lourdes brings people together, offering what Löwensohn's nurse calls "a cure for loneliness" rather than the physical ailments that have left these visitors isolated.
At a time of cinematic fundamentalism - represented by The Passion of the Christ at one extreme, and the wise-ass rationalism of Bill Maher and Larry Charles' Religulous at the other - Lourdes' becalmed neutrality, its compunction to wait and see, comes as a welcome respite, allowing us to make our minds up for ourselves. (One of the conclusions I arrived at was that Lourdes may just be playing a very shrewd numbers game: if enough people are encouraged to visit the resort, then at some point, somebody's got to be healed or make a recovery, in such a way as to further propagate the myth of the miraculous; that it might be the spiritual equivalent of that old saw about monkeys and typewriters making Shakespeare.)
I couldn't bring myself to believe everything about Lourdes. Testud - winsome, pale to the point of opacity, self-consciously clenched, as though determined to squeeze a full body's worth of performance into her upper torso - remains a taste this writer hasn't as yet acquired. Neither the actress, nor her director, feels compelled to suggest anything of Christine's life before she Lourdes, making this a difficult character to get a fix on. And Hausner's ambivalence - the absence of both God and editorialising from her scenario - can manifest itself as a frustrating evasiveness; don't be surprised if fisticuffs break out on the sofa between rationalist and religiose onlookers over what exactly it is they've just witnessed. Yet the film remains intriguing from first frame to last: the work of a director who moves in some very mysterious ways.
Lourdes is available on DVD from Monday.