Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Lubna Azabal, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz
Oscar’s Foreign Language committee this year selected “Incendies,” the latest project of Canadian-born Denis Villeneuve (Maelström, Polytechnique) as one of its five nominated picks. The film first premiered as part of the Critics Week at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and has since gone on to showings at Toronto, and more recently Sundance. “Incendies,” which translates from French as “fire,” follows in the mould of Villeneuve’s previous forays into personal self-discovery (particularly of women) and the cultural hybridism which makes us who we are.
After the death of their mother Nawal, twin siblings Jeanne and Simon are read her will, which states that she’d like them to travel to the Middle East to find their estranged father and brother. Carrying resentment towards his mother, Simon’s immediate reaction is hostile, but Jeanne is eminently more curious about her ambiguous upbringing, and so abandons her studies in search of answers. The film features extended flashbacks of Nawal searching for the son she had as a teenager, and how she is led into a world of criminality and shame. As Jeanne ventures on her journey she finds herself taking a path parallel to Nawal’s, and as the film interchanges between each woman’s stories, the murkier elements of their family history are revealed.
Despite there not being many specific locations in the film, “Incendies” possesses a surprisingly powerful sense of visual scope, heavily aided by the methods of director Villeneuve. He exercises an assured ease of storytelling; unfussy and simple across sparse terrain, effective in drawing us into a scene and generous in allowing us to recognise where we are in his puzzling wilderness. Save for some liberal use of Radiohead tunes, “Incendies” bears a mythical aesthetic refinement, and without seeming at all over-stylised or idyllic. It meshes well with the general uncertainty of the characters and their quest for closure, the large desolate expanses alluding to a realm of unknown possibility.
“Incendies” is comparable with Julian Schnabel’s Miral in terms of structure, depicting women in search of solace at the same points in their life, but in different points in time. While Schnabel’s film toys with that structure to tremendous self-detriment, the way “Incendies” runs its old and new story strands parallel to one another enhances our view of the women, and ties the film’s themes together well through cross-generational relativity. It’s an astutely interdependent way of presenting Jeanne’s cultural homecoming, how in retracing her mother’s steps they share some form of cyclical, realised strength. We don’t really know much about Jeanne’s character, since she becomes a passive component of a deluge of revelations, but the fact that we’re undergoing this Middle Eastern learning curve with her allows us to somewhat identify with her naïve, misunderstood outlook on heritage and belonging.
The film’s key misfires emerge when it comes to generating drama; effective certainly, but flagrant and undeniably contrived. A scene in which Nawal is the only survivor of a massacre reeks of religious symbolism and doesn’t fit well within the grand scheme of things. Worse still, the final discovery in the film is an emotionally manipulative device that feels orchestrated to make “Incendies” feel that bit more impacting as a dramatic showcase. All this revelation does is leave a bitter taste in the mouth, and ensures that the film has straddled both the sublime and the ridiculous. For long periods “Incendies” is basically a heavy-set version of reality television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” providing genealogical information as its primary dramatic impetus. It’s an interesting way of relaying exposition, but, considering the rather aimless way in which Jeanne embarks on this journey, there’s an awful lot of amateur-sleuthing going on. It’s somewhat remarkable, for example, how she so fortunately stumbles upon key figures of her mother’s past without really encountering any resistance to her cause.
The encroaching impression you get while watching “Incendies” is that it has somewhat taken the easy way out; that by making the entire film a slow-burning discovery, all of the major plot points are mapped-out so that we can’t really challenge them. This has already “happened,” therefore we’re supposed to accept it? Once Jeanne has learned all that she can about her family it becomes clear that the film has always been working towards this dark emotional payoff, promoting the expanse of its cultural network before then asserting that “It’s a small world after all.” The sensationalist culmination detracts from the natural feel of the film, and disappointingly undermines the patience with which it documents Jeanne’s cultural enlightenment.
Villeneuve’s visual flair makes “Incendies” more of a compelling mystery than it really ought to be, ambitious in terms of structure and theme, but far too rash with its dramatic devices. Above all, it makes you think about this family; why this mother was so alienated from her children, and is so well-crafted overall that the late, arrogant element of surprise feels like a betrayal. Is this manipulation part of a desperate ploy to shock? Either way, the fire analogy rings true: the lost souls of “Incendies” suffer severe burns, but sadly, so do we.