What is it?
There are historical calamities that, like the sun, are too painful to be gazed on directly and require a more careful approach. Denis Villeneuve’s new film, Incendies, the follow-up to Polytechnique, his drama of the 1988 École Polytechnique shootings, is another story of violent trauma and reconciliation, told with similar, almost ceremonial precision.
The script is an adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s Governor-General’s Award-winning play, Incendies ( Scorched in English), which uses the template of a Greek tragedy to depict the legacy of a recent unnamed Middle East war. The model is obviously the Lebanese civil war (1975 to 1990), though places and characters have been fictionalized for allegorical purposes.
An award winner at last fall’s Vancouver and Toronto film festivals, and Canada’s Oscar entry in the foreign-language category, Incendies is a significant international step forward for a filmmaker who has already established himself as one of Quebec’s most distinctive cinematic stylists. Villeneuve makes an already complex adaptation even more challenging by scuttling much of the playwright’s poetic language while retaining the play’s structure and amplifying the imagery.
Fans of Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu may see some similarities in his approach to fractured traumatic narratives, though Villeneuve, with such features as Maelström and August 32nd on Earth, has independently established his attraction to elliptical structures, fateful coincidences and the reverberations of trauma.
How does it work?
Incendies is a detective story, carried forward by a central quest that unites contrasting worlds and story strands. The film begins with the camera moving from a desert landscape into a limestone house, where a boy gets his hair shorn before entering a madrassa. Suddenly, we cut to wintry Montreal, where a notary, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) has brought together an adult brother, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and his twin sister, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin). They are there for the reading of a posthumous letter from their Arab-Canadian mother, Nawal Marwan.
The mother’s letter resembles a mysterious riddle from a fairy tale or myth. The brother and sister are required to deliver two letters to their brother, who they never heard of, and their father, who they were told was dead. Simon rejects the request while Jeanne accepts it. She travels to her mother’s homeland and, in a Citizen Kane-like series of interviews, she meets people from academics to local villagers to prison guards who fill in parts of her mother’s story.
At the same time, another narrative strand follows the parallel journeys of her mother (played by intensely soulful Belgian actress Lubna Azabal) from her youthful out-of-wedlock pregnancy through a series of different roles and ordeals caused by the war. Near the story’s end, Maxim and the notary come to bring Jeanne home, and the siblings discover the final revelation of their mother’s story.
Does it matter?
With Incendies, Villeneuve attempts to balance moment-by-moment authenticity and operatic emotional impact. Much of the time, he succeeds. The director, in collaboration with brilliant cinematographer André Turpin, finds potent images of loss and destruction – troop carriers rolling through desert roads, charred ruins and suffocating prison cells – that evoke the human anguish behind the reductive news headlines and television clips. There are scenes so immediate you wonder how he captured them, where the blend of actors and apparent non-professional extras feels entirely seamless.
Then comes the Greek tragedy part. The conclusion of Incendies feels more ingenious than convincing. In its stripped-down cinematic form, where the play’s language is radically reduced, the artifice of the structure is pushed to the foreground. Nawal’s strange fate isn’t shaped by the ancient gods of tragedy, nor by a credible chain of causality as in a detective novel. Instead, it’s designed by the artist as puppet-master for worthy didactic reasons. The problem becomes awkwardly obvious in the final flurry of voice-over letters that conclude the film in an unearned shower of healing and reconciliation. The flaw isn’t fatal to the poetry of the film, just unpersuasive and convenient.