A saint on the silver screen

A saint on the silver screen Danièle Ajoret in Bernadette of Lourdes (1960, France)
Lourdes: 160 years of healing
Lourdes is a constant cinematic subject, writes Aubrey Malone

 

Not too many people are aware that films about Bernadette Soubirous go back to the beginning of the film industry. In 1909 there was a short French feature made about the miller’s daughter, Bernadette Soubirous at les Apparitions de Lourdes, directed by Honore de Sablais. In 1926 a director called Bernard Simon made Le Miracle de Lourdes with Pierette Lugand as Bernadette. Three years later George Pallu directed Le Vie Marveilleuse de Bernadette with an actress simply called Alexandra playing her.

Most people have seen Henry King’s 1943 Hollywood version of the Lourdes vision, The Song of Bernadette, which won Jennifer Jones an Oscar. She had a double reason to celebrate as it was on the night of her birthday that she won. Ingrid Bergman was the favourite that year for For Whom the Bell Tolls, the Spanish Civil War drama based on Ernest Hemingway’s brilliant novel.  Jones had the good grace to apologise to her for her disappointment on the night.

Innocence

Some viewers felt the film commercialised the story – it was a familiar ‘sin’ of Hollywood – but most people’s reservations were quashed by its overall sense of purity and innocence. Some people also felt its length (156 minutes) would come against it but this too proved an unfound fear as the story grew in power as it went on.

George Seaton adapted the screenplay from Franz Werfel’s acclaimed novel, which had been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. It had been a Broadway hit as well before King optioned it for Hollywood.

Another Oscar was won that night by Arthur Miller, the cinematographer who lit Bernadette so atmospherically in a film in which light was so important. (He put a spotlight behind her head to create the effect of a halo). An unbilled Linda Darnell played the Virgin Mary. The film also weighed in with a host of other nominations – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Art Direction, Best Supporting Actor (Charles Bickford as the Abbe Dominique Peyramale) and Best Supporting Actress  twice – Anne Revere as Bernadette’s mother and Gladys Cooper as Marie Therese Vauzou, the Mistress of Novices where Bernadette joins the Sisters of Charity as a postulant.

The film wasn’t honoured only at the Academy Awards – 1944 saw the first ever Golden Globes ceremony with Song taking home three trophies, one for Jones as Best Motion Picture Actress, one for King as Best Director – Motion Picture, and one for the film itself, which won the award for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

It was many years before another version of the story was filmed. That was on the small screen when CBS undertook the similarly titled Song of Bernadette with Pier Angeli as the saint this time.

Sadly, Angeli would commit suicide some years later when her marriage broke down and depression took hold of her.

Vision

In 1961 Hans Quest, a German director, made Bernadette Soubirous, a TV movie with Kornelia Boje as the young peasant girl witnessing the vision.  Also that year, Robert Darene directed Bernadette of Lourdes with Daniele Ajoret as the devout 14-year-old. Later in the decade there was a French TV movie called L’Affaire Lourdes directed by Marcel Bluwal with Marie-Helene Breillat as Bernadette

One of the most highly regarded – and spiritually sensitive – films about the circumstances surrounding the Lourdes vision was Jean de Lannoy’s Bernadette. (A later adaptation amended the title to The Passion of Bernadette.) This was  a Swiss/French co-production made in 1988 with Sydney Penny as Bernadette. It still plays in a small movie theatre every day in Lourdes. It’s often been praised for its freedom from any of the commercialism that many associated with Henry King’s version so if you’re visiting Lourdes it would be well worth checking out.

In the new millennium, a flood of films about Bernadette were released, each one attempting a novel approach to the theme while preserving the germ of the original scenarios. The story was set to music in 2002 with Vision, co-directed by Jonathan Smith and Dominic Hartley. 2007 saw the release of the Indian film Our Lady of Lourdes directed by V.R. Gobinath with Asna Noiseux as Bernadette.

In 2009 an Austrian director called Jessica Hausner made Life of Bernadette, a joint French/Austrian/German venture about a girl called Christine who goes to Lourdes in the hope of being cured of multiple sclerosis. In the circumstances, the title is something of a misnomer. The following year saw Life of Bernadette: La Sainte de Lourdes.

In 2011 we had Je m’Appelle Bernadette, a moving French film with Katia Miran as Bernadette. This is difficult to find on Amazon but it can be ordered from contact@hotelsantsauveur.com. The same year brought the release of St Bernadette of Lourdes, directed by Jim Morlino and featuring his daughter Genevieve as Bernadette.

It drew on two books for inspiration, St Bernadette Soubirous by Abbe Francis Trochu and The Appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Grotto of Lourdes by Jean-Baptiste Estrade. It proved to be the most unusual film on the subject as the cast was made up totally of children and teenagers, including the nuns, guards, soldiers and even Our Lady. The idea wasn’t to everyone’s satisfaction but many were charmed by its novelty. It was a brave choice. If you see it, you can make up your own mind if you think it was advisable or not.

Familiar

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the haunting ‘Song of Bernadette’ co-written by Jennifer Warnes and Leonard Cohen and included on the album Famous Blue Raincoat. Warnes was actually christened Bernadette rather than Jennifer. She said she wrote the song in honour of “the great saint who held her ground so well and was not swayed from what she knew to be true”.

Two years ago there was an opera written about Bernadette by a man called Trevor Jones and staged in Gloucestershire. In fact there’s even been an animated version of the story, Bernadette: Princess of Lourdes. It’s only 30 minutes long but won the Award of Excellence from the Film Advisory Board Inc.

Her story runs and runs in almost every genre you care to mention.

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