Incendies is the latest work of Denis Villeneuve, the Quebec director who recently attracted attention with his film Polytechnique. Incendies is currently a nominee (posted 22 Feb) for a US Academy Award (best foreign-language film).
Villeneuve revels in stories that deal in violence with a political tinge. Polytechnique was set in the Montreal school of that name, where, infamously in 1989, 14 female students were slaughtered by the mentally ill Marc Lepine. In Incendies, we examine the civil wars in Lebanon 1975 – 1990 and their extensions into immigrant families in Montreal.
Incendies (literally, “fires”) opens with twin children, Jeanne and Simon, attending the reading of their mother’s last will. They are manifestly upset by the ritual—especially the boy, Simon. Their mother, Nawal Marwan, was a Christian Lebanese refugee. She had led a horrible life and passed many of her anxieties onto her children, particularly the boy.
The will itself is troubling: it mandates a sort of treasure hunt, in which its full provisions cannot be met before the children go off to Lebanon, in search of people and answers. In particular, it asks them to find a previously unknown half-brother, and to deliver sealed letters to him and to other figures from Nawal’s past.
Simon is disinclined to this elaborate probate, resents his late mother, and refuses to obey. However, his sister engages it, and eventually drags Simon into it. She alone sets off to Lebanon in obedience, but also to find out about her own past.
Much of the film takes place in the Middle-east, with action in the present, but also flashbacks. We are witness to Nawal as a young student, caught up in love and politics; we see her later as a victim, but also an actor, in the civil war. Many of these sequences are visually compelling, well framed and directed, and altogether dramatic.
The film is based upon a play of the same title, by Wadji Mouawad. The dialogues bear some tribute to that play, and that’s a defect. In fact, dialogue is not uniformly strong here: sometimes, it is stagey and too remote from the viscera that make cinema work. It must all have resonated on live stages, but it occasionally stalls on the screen. Further, it’s often expository, not organic to the action: it “tells” us plot that we want “shown” instead – a defect we increasingly see in films from countries like France, where new writers are not seasoned in the cinematic arts.
Plot lurches are huge in Incendies, and that was a real issue for this film-goer. Mouawad seems to have based his play on the myth of Oedipus, complete with unnatural set-ups and couplings, changelings, orphans, identity reversals, and other agnorises and perepeteia common to Sophocles. These reversals, of action and consciousness, are based upon discoveries that characters make about people, but also, about their own lives. In Incendies, they are flagrant, too frequent, too directed “from above,” and too hugely coincidental.
Such devices worked very well among the ancient Greeks; but that’s because the Greeks understood the context and the convention: first, that there were all-powerful gods, who ruled lives and arranged retribution and outcomes accordingly; second, because Greeks knew they were watching mythic re-enactments of their own history, already transpired; hence, they were waiting for the outcomes to happen, and prepared to see the deity intervene as appropriate.
Mouawad has wanted to make reference to that, and to frame his Lebanon in Sophoclean terms, but it`s too obvious. Nevertheless, the core of the film survives as a strong entertainment. Despite flaws, Incendies is satisfying and compels. Well paced, acted, and photographed, it is not to be missed, especially if you are a follower of immigrant life in diasporas such as Montreal’s, and also the narratives of the Middle-east.