Adapted from Wadji Mouawad‘s award-winning 2003 play, Incendies is a challenging, intriguing and powerful film about the intergenerational consequences of an ongoing conflict in a country in the Middle East – though not specified directly, there are telling parallels to Lebanon. Adapted for the screen and directed by Denis Villeneuve, the film was Canada’s entry in the Best Foreign Feature category at this year’s Oscars and is currently enjoying a run on UK screens after opening here this past weekend.
Incendies opens properly in contemporary Quebec, where twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Guadette) Marwan are read their mother’s will by her notary and former employer Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard). Each of them are given a sealed letter that they must, as per their mother’s instructions, deliver to two different men: their father, previously presumed dead, and a brother of whose existence they have hitherto been unaware.
As Jeanne takes up her mother’s request more willingly than does Simon, she retraces her mother Nawal’s roots from a young Christian in war-torn (let’s assume) Lebanon, whose Muslim lover is shot dead for impregnating her; later, Nawal became self-declared enemy of the nationalists aligned with the Christian right and was hired by Muslim forces to assassinate their leader. Investigating her mother’s past, Jeanne’s journey is inter-cut with flashbacks to Nawal’s own story; played by Lubna Azabal, Nawal is given an immediacy that exists on its own terms and also heightens the daughter’s contemporary pilgrimage.
As a fictionalisation of its nominal country, the film truncates an incredibly complex period of political and religious conflict, but also succeeds in giving a vivid impression of such history. In unfolding in the way that it does – as essentially an investigative mystery – the film is able to match a historical sweep with a personal arc, and driven by strong, believable performances, it maintains a high tension between past and present and the ever-changing significance of truthful retrospection and the way it retroactively affects one’s understanding of oneself.
Thematically, then, the film is strong, and writer-director Villeneuve matches his material with a cinematic and sensitive eye; a telling shot early on in the film, after Jeanne and Simon exit the notary’s office to the street outside, views the pair from afar, their physical proximity made all the more touching by (firstly) the growing disagreement between them and (secondly) Villeneuve’s decision to shoot in one take from some distance. As he does throughout the film, the director places his characters in overwhelming shade, with a light source saturating another part of the frame but not illuminating the actors – in this case, the architecture of urban Quebec traps the characters while the more open, less shadowy expanse at the end of the street awaits them; André Turpin‘s cinematography is impressive.
The film delivers a symbolic clarity that makes its characters’ arcs moving on an aesthetic level while they remain emotionally involving on a story level. Even when this latter element risks stretching suspension of disbelief, its theoretical possibility remains intact as a result of a careful and restrained approach to the fundamentals of the material. As it cuts between the past and the present, the film is also intellectually demanding, rich in its narrative fabric (wonderfully edited by Monique Dartonne) and elusive in its constant and sustained tonal shifts. Perhaps most unique is the repeated use of music by Radiohead; the film itself opens with what is a haunting flashback played out to “You and Whose Army?”. (“Like Spinning Plates” features at a later point.)
This opening prelude begins with an establishing shot displaying the picturesque beauty of this country (it was filmed in Jordan) and is then succeeded by a nightmarish sequence of images of boys having their heads shaved. As is later revealed – and as is immediately clear in some suggestive way – the youngsters are undergoing some forced indoctrination, recruited by a military that has burned their orphanage and has now decided to exploit them to its own means. Given the significance of this collective brainwashing and its implications for the personal tragedy revealed later in the film, it’s the kind of opening that works even better on repeat viewings; and the film as a whole is rich enough to demand and reward them.
[Also posted here.]