In strict, superficial terms, there’s no reason why Incendies should work. Its combination of sleek camera techniques, apolitical statements and its crescendo of melodramatic twists—often to the point of being Almodóvar-esque—sounds like it can only lead to chaos. However, director Denis Villeneuve subtly, and patiently, weaves all these elements together so that often we find ourselves wondering exactly just where is his movie taking us. More than that, we find ourselves transfixed and haunted by the journey.
Based on a lauded play by Wajdi Mouawad, the first miracle the film overcomes is breaking lose of all its theatricality. Instead of relying on the chilling monologues written by Mouawad, it transforms his ideas of injustice and desolation into searing images that effortlessly evoke the same effect (rarely do movies provide as many memorable framed shots as the ones found in Incendies). The film opens with a majestic tracking shot (set to Radiohead, of all things) which ends with a child looking straight into the camera. At the moment we don’t know who he is but the pain, fear and anger in his eyes remain with us throughout the rest of the movie.
The next scene—the official start, perhaps—is set in the office of a notary (played by the reliably stern Rémy Girard) who sits across from twins: Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette). Their mother has just died and has left them three letters. One for the brother they never knew they had, one for their father, whom they presumed dead, and one they can open only after they have delivered the other two.
Rémy’s delivery is so unsentimental that we can’t help but support his character’s notion that the task they’ve just been assigned is nothing short of sacred. It’s perhaps the strange, somewhat irrational, sense of duty created in this scene, that prevents us from digging deeper into the film’s tonal discrepancies. We become so consumed by the film’s central mystery that we don’t bother questioning matters of economic and practical reasons.
Who exactly was their mother? Who was Nawal Marwan and why did she keep so many secrets from her children during their entire lives?
Without warning and stylistic flourishes, Villeneuve throws us back in time to a period when the young Nawal (played with fiery conviction by Lubna Azabal) lived in her home country, an unnamed Middle Eastern country we can assume is Lebanon. Taken away from the man she loves for their religious differences, Nawal’s life becomes the stuff martyr’s dreams are made of. Through the decade spanning narrative—which Villeneuve alternates with Jeanne and Simon’s own search—we see how Nawal undergoes her country’s violent political changes. From her heartbreaking teenage years to her idealistic university time and an a harrowing prison stay, she conveys the lack of humanity and sense found in religious wars. Even if the film never truly feels political, in the sense that it doesn’t tackle specific points or even bothers to name actual countries and people (perhaps in its search of universality?) it’s still effective in encompassing the misery brought on by the lack of comprehension in why people decide to kill each other in the name of religion.
In the film’s most haunting sequence, Nawal hides her crucifix and dons a head scarf, so that she may travel in a bus with Muslim passengers. Without making a fuss out of it, Villeneuve shows us how easy it is to lie in the name of what we think we’re supposed to think. The bus-boarding scene is followed by one of the most gruesome depictions of intolerance shot in contemporary cinema, all of which leads to make us understand better why Nawal became so secretive in later years.
Some might be put off by the film’s necessity to concentrate so much on Nawal instead of the sociopolitical changes going on around her. It’s even easy to see why some audience members might think that the filmmakers are using the more “important” scope, to enhance Nawal’s own drama. The truth is that Incendies is a perfect reminder that more often than not, it’s through the intimate that we can better understand the epic. Jeanne is told “you will force insoluble problems that will lead to other insoluble problems” encompassing her own life’s story with a more universal depiction.
Besides his great manipulation of plot, Villeneuve impresses with his keen visual sense, as well. The way he and director of photography André Turpin, compose each scene are filled with meaning and invite viewers to exploit their other senses. There are moments when we can’t completely see what’s going on and are forced to make use of other elements and join the siblings in their puzzle solving. We are told that Jeanne is a mathematician, for example, and the plot makes clever use of formulas to try to make sense of the chaos that suddenly irrupts into her life. One of the characters wonders if the eternal notion that 1+1=2 can be distorted and Villeneuve proves it can by blurring the lines between Jeanne and Nawal to the point that sometimes we wonder whose story we’re watching.
Incendies is a timely reminder that poetry can be found even in the chaotic.