French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has created one of this year’s most powerful dramas by perfectly intertwining a tragedy of Greek proportions with a social commentary about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
Opening with a dreamlike pan across an unnamed Middle East country, noticeably accompanied by a powerfully emotive, yet seemingly indecorous Radiohead song (You and Whose Army?), Incendies makes you aware from the outset that what you’re about to embark on is an incredibly stylish and emotionally draining piece of cinema. The action is swiftly transferred to modern day Canada where we intrude upon the reading of Nawal Marwan’s (Lubna Azabal) will to her two siblings, twins by the names of Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin). It becomes instantly apparent that the relationship this brother and sister had with their mother was complicated at best, but nowhere near as convoluted as the immensely irregular task they have inherited. Two envelopes are produced, one given to each twin. One is addressed to ‘the son’ and the other to ‘the father’. Up until this moment neither sibling had any idea they had another brother, and so starts a captivating exploration into the murky past of their recently departed mother and a enlightening journey through the annals of their family history. Each time a part of the puzzle is solved, a whole new revelation presents itself, before finally leading to an emotionally devastating conclusion that neither child could possibly have imagined.
Based on an award winning, three and a half hour play by Wajdi Mouawad, Villeneuve’s Incendies relies on the hatred and abuse which dwells within its story to drive the plot forward. This extremely multi layered movie is compromised of numerous complex issues, revealing themselves intermittently as the film’s furtive mystery is carefully peeled apart, with each new discovery as poignant and shocking at the last. A dexterous handling of the film’s carefully constructed dialogue is the key to this truly breathtaking collection of unforgettable narrative twists and turns. The decision to use an unnamed Middle Eastern country (despite it quite obviously being Lebanon) also liberates Villeneuve from the constraints of such a political charged setting, freeing him to explore the rich mosaic of themes hidden beneath this fascinating story.
Such a meticulously constructed script demands impeccable performances for its fragile premise to effectively resonate, something Incendies can certainly pride itself upon. However, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the cast is Lubna Azabal, who plays Nawal over a range of years, conveying a multitude of emotions with admirable confidence, never appearing as anything less than compelling. Such a role in lesser hands would certainly never have worked, with it being essential that the audience becomes completely transfixed by Nawal’s devastatingly harrowing journey through life for this impassioned story to effectively resonate with the degree of emotional involvement its heartrending climax demands
Villeneuve’s assured direction prevents what could easily have become a messy collection of increasingly traumatic events from collapsing into melodrama or overly stylised pomposity. His effortless cuts between past and present are subtly exposed through an enlightened use of lighting and sound which, combined with some visually exceptional flares of technical ability, culminates in an escalating level of tension that explodes sporadically throughout the film, building slowly towards a genuinely stunning finale. Using Jeanne (an academic and mathematician) as the protagonist through which we primarily investigate this deeply personal family tale works perfectly, with the story genuinely feels like an equation being meticulously solved, a fact only emphasised by a skilful collection of tracking shots and intense static frames that allow us to scrutinise the events which unfold at exactly the same pace as this inquisitive young lady.
Incendies does, however, require you to accept it rather ludicrous narrative device (the two letters handed to the twins at their Mother’s will reading) if you’re to be transfixed by its admittedly overly dramatic plot. The Letters whilst incredibly convenient (Raising questions of how such secrets could have been kept, and why you would reveal such sensitive subject matter through an elaborate guessing game?) do help set the story in motion, acting as a constant reminder of the task at hand and adding a degree of intrigue which ultimately underpins the whole film. By all rights the film’s premise should buckle under the weight of its own outlandish story, however, it all somehow manages to gel together, creating an emotionally engrossing tale of the often cruel bonds which tie a family together
Incendies deep down is simply an old fashioned family drama, cloaked behind a shroud of mystery and set against a backdrop of conflict. Yet, the level of artistic panache involved in creating this highly evocative film results in so much more, culminating in a sumptuously presented movie which manages to entertain the sense whilst simultaneously stimulating the brain – a triumph in modern storytelling.
Incendies is out on DVD and blu-ray 12th September 2011.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
Runtime: 130 min
Country: Canada, France