Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski has been inspired to plan a traumatic scavenger hunt to put into her will.
"Death is never the end of the story. It always leaves tracks."—Jean
The above quotation is spoken in Incendies (Blu-ray) by a Canadian notary, a man in the business of dealing with death's tracks as he executes wills and divides up estates. His remarks, though, echo through the whole of the film's story—one that starts with the will of a dead mother, but explores the way in which several deaths throughout her life have become dark beginnings rather than endings. Incendies shows death as a generative event in a more sophisticated way than most violence-begets-violence narratives. Beyond the big ideas, its mystery structure also provides absolutely riveting entertainment.
Facts of the Case
In Canada, twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Taking the Plunge) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette, Polytechnique) are dealing with their mother's death. Meeting with her employer, Jean (Rémy Girard, The Barbarian Invasions), who is also executing her will, the twins receive posthumous instructions from their mother to travel to her (fictional) home country in the Middle East and find their father and brother. The problem is that they believe their father to be dead and that no one they know has seen their brother since moments after he was born and whisked away to an orphanage.
The quest will lead them through a heretofore hidden biography of their enigmatic mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal, Paradise Now), and will radically reconstruct their senses of self and family.
Incendies was adapted from the play by Wajdi Mouawad by Canadian director/screenwriter Denis Villeneuve and the film's strengths can be introduced well by saying that these stage origins are at once apparent and hard to believe in the screen version.
Like the best plays, this film relies on eloquent and intelligent writing brought to life by astounding performances from its actors. The screenplay balances instances of intense violence with the kind of poetic insight that seems to be a hallmark of French-language narratives. Nawal's letters to her family members, especially, seem to embody a deep and reluctant understanding of how violence has shaped all their lives, beautifully expressed in lines like, "Childhood is a knife stuck in your throat. It can't be easily removed." Far from being overly talky, though, as plays-turned-films tend to be, Incendies shows a great deal of verbal economy and also an interest in the struggles of language and communication across cultures as the French-Canadian twins journey to the Middle East.
Indeed, as much of the film's power is written in the faces of its performers as in the words of its screenplay. The standouts here are the female leads: Azabal as the mother, Nawal, and Désormeaux-Poulin as the daughter, Jeanne. As Incendies shifts between Nawal's past and Jeanne's search for that past in the present, their resemblance to each other leads to an interesting confusion of time periods for the viewer—reinforcing the sense in which the present is always built from the past—but also a contrast between the two women, expressed through the two actresses' performances. Nawal becomes so profoundly damaged by the violence in her life so early on in her story that Azabal must always convey a blend of weariness, despair, and defiant resilience. She does so perfectly, exuding the strength of spirit that becomes her character's most vital trait in the midst of ceaseless horror. As Jeanne traces her mother's course in the Middle East and discovers each shocking instance of terror and death in Nawal's life, Désormeaux-Poulin exhibits an erosion of her character's innocence. The actress gets us caught up in the question of whether Jeanne's air of kindness and openness will be broken by this experience—the extent to which the traumas of Nawal's life will traumatize her, too, as a grim final inheritance from her mother. The only problem with these women's brilliance is that it makes Gaudette seem comparatively weak as the brother, Simon. His character is very emotionally guarded, which he plays well, but which doesn't leave as deep an impression on the audience.
While the strength of the writing and acting tie Incendies to its theatrical roots, it also engages with space in a really beautiful and expansive way and feels utterly comfortable in its cinematic skin—unlike most films adapted from plays. Not having read the play myself, it's hard to even conceive of how a story that covers so much atmospheric and geographical ground—with many sets and on-location scenes that make essential contributions to both the tone and ideas of the story—could be rendered well on stage. Villeneuve, for example, uses recurring scenes at swimming pools to gently evoke all kinds of ideas that swirl around the story: birth and rebirth, cleansing, drowning, escape, and disconnection from the world, a slowing down of time. He breaks up the upsetting plot with contemplative shots of landscapes that both resonate with the film's themes and give viewers time to regroup.
Villeneuve and his director of photography also prove their mastery of cinematic language over and over in Incendies, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of the power of a close-up or long shot, or of choosing just the right angle. Near the beginning of the film when Jeanne and Simon are reeling from the reading of Nawal's will, Villeneuve sticks with a long shot of their extended argument on the sidewalk outside, keeping us far away from the twins and their facial expressions as they bicker. Then he juxtaposes that shot with a tight close-up of Jeanne's face as she listens to an evocative lecture on mathematics (her area of study) that we know is forecasting what she's about to go through in the film: "The mathematics you've studied until now have sought to provide clear and definitive answers to clear and definitive problems. Now you are embarking on a new adventure. You will face insoluble problems that will lead to other, equally insoluble problems. Friends will insist that the object of your toil is futile. You'll have no way of defending yourself, for the problems will be of mind-boggling complexity."
The claustrophobia of the framing here, heightened by the bare wall on the right that seems to be penning her in, helps us experience the rising pressure Jeanne feels to begin this frightening quest her mother left for her. This innate sense of how to use moving images allows Villeneuve to convey feelings and information succinctly, as when he helps us understand the experience of a long-term inmate at a Middle Eastern prison through a simple choice of angle: a shot looking down at bare feet on the floor of a tiny cell as they pace from one side to the other, a distance of only three-to-four feet that is easily traversed.
I was relieved to see the sense of understatement that Villeneuve brings to the film with these types of shots extended to its depiction of certain kinds of violence, particularly sexual violence and torture. Walking the fine line between hard-hitting realism and a graphicness that tips into exploitation or insensitivity, Villeneuve is careful about how he dispenses audiovisual brutality. He helps us to understand the appalling inhumanity of a rape, for example, by showing the victim's fear beforehand and the event's physical and emotional aftermath, but he omits a scene of the rape itself. It's tough to know how to do justice to such a trauma as a filmmaker, but considering how many other films have showed vicious rapes in almost-unwatchable detail (that I suspect reopens emotional wounds for the many, many rape survivors scattered throughout film audiences), I appreciated his ability to convey the act's horrors in another way.
Sony provides a nicely appointed Blu-ray/DVD combo for Incendies. Normally I'd comment on whether one really needs the HD treatment of Blu-ray or whether buying the cheaper DVD version would suffice, but neither the film's official site nor Amazon indicate that a stand-alone DVD exists. If someday it does, I'd still go for the Blu-ray, since the film's stark beauty is very well rendered on this disc. There is something about the arid desert landscapes and the carefully studied destruction of people and places that seems to demand the crisp detail of this visual presentation. Audio in the film is relatively sparse, but the DTS-HD MA track maintains the film's effective contrasts between quiet stillness and the booms of sudden violence. It also pumps in some songs from Radiohead at key moments, which first seemed out of place but grew on me.
Extras are few but substantive and are housed on the Blu-ray disc. Villeneuve comes off as intelligent and quietly charming on his commentary track. The native French speaker's English isn't fantastic, but that didn't bother me. Throughout, he speaks intelligently and eloquently about the ideas in the film and behind-the-scenes details, remaining humble about his own authority to make such a work: "This film is about Middle East and War. Me, I just know Canada and winter." We learn that Villeneuve used the war photographs of James Nachtwey as inspiration for some scenes, that CGI was crucial in recreating the look of a Middle Eastern city in the '80s, and that actress Lubna Azabal reminded Villeneuve of "a green beret"—in high-pressure shooting environments, she just hits the ground without asking any questions and gets the job done. The other main extra is a fascinating 45-minute documentary called "Remembering the Ashes: Incendies through Their Eyes" that reveals an emotional undercurrent to the on-location filming in Jordan. Since the country is home to many refugees from Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, actors and extras hired to be in the film—or even just those watching the production from the sidelines—were often reliving their own traumatic experiences of war. These memories "[cling] to our skin," says one young woman, while another woman explains that she wanted her children to act in a very violent scene so that "they'll understand why we left Iraq." I highly recommend this extra, which situates the film itself in a complex regional context. There is a theatrical trailer on the Blu-ray disc that also appears on the DVD copy, but the commentary and documentary do not.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I found Incendies deeply moving and deftly made, but there are a few
points in the script and soundtrack that felt weak to me. The film is fairly
long and that length seems basically justified, but several odd tangents about
the beautiful profession of the notary and its history should have been
cut—especially considering how much other material had to be cut to make
the four-hour stage play a manageable length. Perhaps there is a film out there
somewhere into which these scenes would fit snuggly, but Incendies isn't
it. Villeneuve's own father was a notary, so personal interest in the career may
have clouded his judgment here.
Lastly, I finished the disc feeling rather ambivalent about the use of a fictional country in the Middle East rather than a real one with a real history (an element of Mouawad's play retained by Villeneuve in the screen version). Villeneuve seems to do a lot of fancy footwork on his commentary to avoid giving the impression that this locale is just Lebanon in a thin disguise. I can see the wisdom of disconnecting an antiwar film like Incendies from the specific and contentious politics of a country like Lebanon in an attempt to reach a broad audience, but there is also a danger in generalizing and abstracting politics into the "fictional" history of the film. There is little enough awareness in the West of the specific cultures and histories of countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan and so on. A film like Incendies encourages a blurring of these distinctions into an inaccurate and singular conception of the Middle East that falls closer to stereotyping than to real understanding.
As artfully made as it is emotionally shattering, Incendies functions as an engaging and exciting mystery and also as a treatise against war and violence in all of their forms. Weariness with watching "another depressing war movie" might scare some viewers away from the film, but they'll be missing out.
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