Incendies (2010, Denis Villeneuve)
To say there was buzz surrounding the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, one is forced to put things into perspective. I haven’t the faintest clue if this film will receive any sort of wider North American release and if it does, it will most certainly quite limited. What’s more, I’d be curious to see how many our neighbouring English Canadian movie goers will have a chance to see the film. Here in Québec, however small a market that may be, there was indeed some moderate hype and anticipation regarding this drama based on the critically acclaimed play from Wajdi Mouawad.
According to interviews with director Denis Villeneuve, it was decided that whatever comedic elements existed in the original theater version of the story would be sacrificed in favour of the heavier drama. Having not seen the play, I have to wonder what comedic touches there are in the stage version, because the story of Incendies is dark, very dark. Early on siblings Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxime Gaudette respectively) learn from their family’s notary, Jean Lebel (the indelible Québécois actor Rémy Girard) that their recently deceased mother has commissioned in her will that they perform two deceptively simple tasks. One involves Jeanne giving a sealed envelope to their father and the other would have Simon deliver a sealed envelope to their brother. The disconcerting aspect of these demands is that, to their knowledge, their father died many years ago and they have no other brother. Jeanne, being the more calm and collected of the two, is willing to investigate the matter, even if it means travelling to Lebanon, where their mother was originally from and spent the majority of her life. Simon is bitter towards their family’s history and feels almost relieved that with their mother’s passing, they can leave everything behind and get on with their lives. He chooses to stay home.
From that point onwards Villeneuve’s film is split between two intertwined storylines, both branches emanating from the same tree. One has Jeanne make her way around Lebanon, inquiring (with the help of some new found contacts) about their family’s past and just who this unknown brother might be. The other story transpires in the past, before twins Jeanne and Simon were even born. The viewer gets to follow Nawal Marjan (Lubna Azabal), their mother, as her life is turned upside down from the moment her lover is shot dead by some siblings who feel as though she has disgraced the family name. Because the story, and by extension the Marwan family history, is reasonably sprawling, the movie does take some time truly getting off the ground. By no means was I bored in the opening 30 minutes, but I was not convinced the film was doing anything remarkable. However, there is a specific moment in the movie when the plot thickens in the best sense and from then on Denis Villeneuve weaves a sad, frustrating and emotionally rich tale, the impact of which was immediately felt and remained with me for some time after leaving the screening room. Were I to succinctly argue what the film is about, I would say Incendies’ critical message is one of acceptance. More specifically, an acceptance of the past, an acceptance of who one is and finally an acceptance that some things simply cannot be what we always want them to. Whether directly or not, acceptance is often an act of love. To accept one’s fate and who one is, one might be forced to reconcile with a past which is less than admirable, regardless if the virtue, or lack thereof, of said past is beyond one’s control or not. Mustering up enough love to accept a past we’d much rather forget and burry in the deepest and dustiest closets of our mind is never easy. Accepting it is even less so. Incendies ending is one that offers the audience a case for acceptance, but the film is so emotionally dark that even these brief message of love is served with the most bitter of pills to swallow.
Let it be clear that Villeneuve’s cinematic adaptation of Mouawad’s play is much more an emotional ride than it is an intellectual one. One shouldn’t assume this makes Incendies a tear jerker (I think it’s even too dark for that) or something that has been dumbed down. It is the whirlwind of emotions the characters go through which carry the story more than anything else, in particular Jeanne, who embarks on the trip to unlock her family’s history, and the mother Nawal, whose resolve in the face of obstacles left and right is uncanny (her portion of the movie occurs at a time when the country was at war). I don’t even think I could make the case that the movie offers anything out of the ordinary in terms of cinematography or score, or any technical aspects. Everything here is quite competent, with maybe the editing rising a bit more to the occasion, but it is the rich emotional tapestry found within the story itself which becomes the reward awaiting the audience. Like the best three act plays, Incendies ultimately succeeds in upping the ante whenever a new bit of information is uncovered. The movie starts off good, then becomes very good, and finally bursts through the stratosphere. Obviously I’m not going to give anything way, but I will admit to feeling a bit exhausted by the film’s end. Not because the movie is too long, but because the final 20 minutes offered a conclusion that was so bizarre and emotionally ambiguous, I found myself truly challenged and working like a mad dog. I can imagine several people disliking the conclusion, maybe going so far as to calling it borderline exploitative, serving nothing else but shock value. I disagree.
Villeneuve handles the two threads nicely, never giving too much time to one or the other. There were portions when the drama Nawal was put through outweighed the more simply investigating done by Jeanne, but the scenes in present day never lulled. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin deserves much credit for giving a layered performance, one that gave her character and the movie itself a lot of humanity. She wasn’t merely a twenty-something looking on in disbelief every time she learned some shocking new truth, an empty vessel if you will. She was three dimensional and honestly, quite relatable as well. Of the two siblings, Jeanne and Simon, I think my own behaviour at the start of the movie and in the early going would have been more akin to the former. Lubna Azabal as Nawal gives the most memorable performance of the movie however. Desperation, defiance, anger, hope, her character goes through entire waves of pain, but she shows on more than one occasion that she is one amazing trooper, willing to sacrifice her well being for what she believes to be good. It is only ironic then that several years after her arduous adventure in Lebanon, when she is living peacefully with her children in Montréal, that one little detailed revelation proves to be her mental and emotional unravelling.
In many ways, Incendies is an unforgiving film. If a movie goer is looking for something challenging that won’t pull any punches, I don’t think there is a better film playing right now. The movie takes absolutely no prisoners. It offers strong performances and a tale of a family’s shattered and murky history that refuses to soften the edges. Even the reprieve at the very end has a decidedly dour tone to it. You don’t take the kids to see this and you avoid this if you want a ‘fun’ night out at the movies. I’m making all this sound as though if you, the readers, ever get a chance to catch the movie that you should turn around and walk away. Of course not, I strongly encourage anyone to discover it. The only problem is that at this point in time it’s only playing in the province of Québec. Last it week it was revealed that Incendies would be the film Canada shall plug in the hopes of a Best Foreign Film award at next year’s Oscars, so there may be some hope yet.