Incendies (2010)

One plus one equals DAMN

Denis Villeneuve spends Incendies creating a tension between docudrama and melodrama: An unromantic depiction of a civil war-torn Middle Eastern country as the backdrop to a mother’s sordid, twisting path. The film is generally held in high regard by film fans, sitting comfortably in the 100 highest-rated films of all time on Letterboxd as of this writing. And yet the film has its share of skeptics, even haters, and I think that tension explains why: On the one hand, putting the melodrama in the docudrama adds some dark sensationalism to the scenario, giving Incendies the slight stink of orientalism — excessive otherifying of an Asian culture by a Canadian with no roots in the region. On the other hand, Villeneuve’s effort to make the film gritty and dangerous, a mirror to real-llife headlines and news footage, makes some of the film’s wilder twists feel especially implausible and outrageous.

Personally, I think the tension works very well, if a bit nakedly. I was deeply engaged, though I did feel a little bit gross about it, like I knew Villeneuve was emotionally manipulating me and leveraging my biases. But Incendies is richer and more interesting than any of his films to this point in his career, and the sense that he’d made the audience into slimy gawkers doesn’t weigh down the whole film the way it does in Polytechnique. That’s partially a factor of my own baggage, sure, but it’s moreso in the perspective Villeneuve takes: He pulls away from the specifics and focuses instead on the broader ideas. He explores with vignettes how cultural and religious displacement cause fanatical violence — how they, more generally, obliterate healthy family bonds and societal structures. And when it culminates in a wild series of coincidences that drills the point home for twins Jeanne and Simon, it is a gut punch, connecting the protagonists (and, by proxy, the viewer) to the idea that these problems are our problems, even when it doesn’t seem like they’re happening right in our backyard. It’s a deeply imperfect film, but a stirring one, with one of those serpentine endings so ballsy you’ll be bowled over if you’re not rolling your eyes.

It helps that Villeneueve has blossomed as an excellent director, at least on a scene-by-scene basis. A few of these incidents are truly bone-rattling: The best scene in the film comes towards the middle of the film. There’s a violent encounter on a bus that is immensely upsetting. Villeneueve’s use of abrupt, gut-splitting violence in Polytechnique is transplanted here multiple times to equally startling effect.

Villeneueve remains a less accomplished writer and large-scale storyteller than director, though. He is at least blessed with a corker of a scenario, adapted from a play of the same name: Twins Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are directed by their recently deceased mother’s will to find their father they’ve never met and a brother they didn’t even know existed, which means they need to return to the unspecified Levantine country from which their mother emigrated and retrace her life story.

The rest of the film alternates between the present and flashbacks of the life of the mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). This structure results in a lot of expository redundancy that Villeneueve is not quite up to navigating: The order in which the audience learns something about Nawal’s life as opposed to Jeanne and Simon seems arbitrary and rarely makes good use dramatic irony or well-timed surprises, with a few key exceptions. Regardless, he seems most concerned with maximizing the gut punches of the film’s final 45 minutes than the path leading up to it, with everything leading us there little breadcrumbs and snapshots.

Incendies has a novelistic sprawl to it that is immersive and compelling. Even when parts of it don’t add up (particularly a screwy chronology that doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny), we always have a sense of the hugeness and scariness of Nawal’s life. It’s the third consecutive use of a nonlinear timeline by Villeneuve, who is fascinated with reframing truths in new lights in each of this, Polytechnique, and Maelstrom. It’s his most ambitious use of nonlinear timelines in these early films, and his most effective, though still sloppy.

The depiction of a war-torn cityscape has excellent production for an indie release, with sets of rubble and crumbling buildings and explosions filling the horizon. Villeneuve shot parts of the film in Jordan, but his script declines to name the country it’s set in. However, many of the details align with the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-90. You’ll see some sources cite Lebanon as the given setting of the film, but I think it’s important (and good) that we aren’t given a specific country as the setting, as it gives Villeneuve the breathing room to keep the story fabulistic and symbolic rather than bound to fact. We are not given a detailed political sketch of the scenario, but we infer that right-leaning Christians in power are facing resistance from Muslim rebels. Nawal is Christian by birth but sympathetic to the Muslims rather than the nationalists. This comes to a head in one of the film’s cruelly ironic moments: Nawal holds up a cross necklace shouting “I’m Christian! I’m Christian!” to avoid getting gunned down by religious zealots.

The acting is highlighted by Azabal as Nawal, who gives a wonderful performance of a woman both weary and persistent, her dignity always present even as the film subjects her to cruelty. I liked Desormeaux-Poulin and Gaudette as the twins in the present timeline, too — Desormeaux-Poulin gives a particularly haunting shriek when she makes an important realization towards the end of the film.

Incendies is a very bleak film. Villeneuve’s Quebecois quartet grows increasingly cynical about a black core of trauma at the heart of the human experience from film to film. They are unified around characters making sense of some aspect of their Canadian heritage and its bewildering mixing pot of cultures and values, but with a growing darkness to that theme. Incendies was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (back before the Academy renamed it), and it was enough of a darling for Hollywood to come knocking at the Canadian director’s door.

Now that I’ve wrapped the Canadian stretch of his films, it’s more clear than ever that the four themes of Villeneuve’s storytelling I proposed in my Maelstrom review have held, at least through his Canadian era. Incendies certainly features all four: cyclic violence, actions with unpredictable and long-spanning consequences, empathy as a healing force, and the recontextualization of early scenes with new information for dramatic effect.

Though I’m excited to see where he goes from here, I’m also sad to lose the distinct Quebecois identity that Villeneuve brought to these films, even when the results were mixed. He leaves the Canadian film apparatus and the French language right on the cusp of greatness with the bleak, uneven, but immensely watchable Incendies.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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