Directed by: Denis Villeneuve || Produced by: Luc Dery, Kim McCraw
Screenplay by: Denis Villeneuve, Valerie Beaugrand-Champagne || Starring: Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Allen Altman
Music by: Gregoire Hetzel || Cinematography by: Andre Turpin || Edited by: Monique Dartonne || Country: Canada || Language: French, Arabic
Running Time: 130 minutes
Before his 2013 American debut with Prisoners, and this year’s likely Academy Award-heavyweight, Sicario (2015), French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve was already a hot topic in new millennium global cinema. One of his best reviewed and memorable works remains Incendies, a melodramatic odyssey in the vein of tragedies like the works of Sophacles and Shakespeare. Incendies follows the journey of two recently orphaned college students who travel to their mother’s Middle Eastern homeland to uncover her past as part of her dying will. During their ominous journey through familial history, these twins discover unsettling truths about their mothers’ horrific upbringing and struggle to survive in her native country’s civil war.
The meat of the narrative concerns two themes: (1) The disconnect between and reconnection of immigrants’ children to their ancestral homeland, and (2) the sheer arbitrary nature of religious strife and the sectarian violence it produces. Many films discuss each topic in detail, but few tackle them together, let alone in such intertwined and absorbing fashion as Villeneuve’s Incendies.
The screenplay’s greatest strengths are the sheer variety of locales and set-pieces arranged by its flashback structure. Just when the present-day story becomes complacent, we switch to the mother’s flashback story, and when that becomes too exhausting, we switch again to the twins’ perspective in modern day. Incendies paces its heavy, often brutal 130-minute narrative well in this fashion, and Villeneuve’s tasteful use of slow-motion sequences set to memorable Radiohead tracks add style and suave to a would-be depressing Oscar-bait.
Villeneuve’s camera and use of Andre Turpin’s cinematographic eye help pace the story as well as the script. The film’s visuals make use of long-takes and wideshots as much as disturbingly graphic close-ups of torture and civilian massacre. The contrast between the present storyline’s tone of mystery and pampered, 1st-world adolescence, and the mother’s (Lubna Azabal’s) violent, war-torn flashbacks are jarring and extremely effective. Though the film’s melodrama and implausible McGuffin tend to distract from Incendies‘ powerful visuals and intriguing thematic analysis, its sheer tonal diversity and strong performances justify its Oedipus-like journey. In most other filmmakers’ hands, Incendies would be an over-the-top mess or preachy Academy favorite, but Villeneuve crafts strong characters and memorable sequences into a fascinating story that asks invaluable questions, rather than preaching first and telling an interesting story second.
Perhaps the lone significant complaint one could hurl at this movie is how incredibly unlikable its present day adolescent leads are; Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette star as Azabal’s daughter and son, respectively, and at times make you wonder if their spoiled, bratty personalities caused her character’s stroke and not some horrific revelation connected to her tormented cast. To be far, Desormeaux-Poulin and Gaudette are committed to their roles and their characters feel like real people, but this is a case where realism may have gotten in the way of character perspective and audience-relatability. These characters don’t drag down their modern storylines much, thankfully, but I’d be lying if I said I respected them anymore at the end of the film than I did at the beginning, nor that I ever found either of them particularly fascinating.
Incendies nevertheless remains a powerful movie built upon patient parallel storytelling, unapologetic yet rarely exploitative cinematic violence, and a strong lead character. If you loved Sicario as I did, I wholeheartedly recommend this film as yet more evidence of Villeneuve’s auteur talent. He somehow manages to tread the delicate line between gratuitous excess and hard-hitting melodrama. His filmmaking style almost recalls the emotional roller coasters of Bollywood blockbusters, and yet his movies remain grounded in disturbing realism. In other words, Incendies, like much of cinema’s best, combines the best of both filmic worlds to portray a cinematic experience that is both conceptually complex and exciting in the most primal sort of way.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Incendies boasts impeccable pacing from both a smart script and a diverse cinematographic style. Azabal is a captivating lead and portrays a well developed, deep protagonist. Villeneuve has a keen ear for great music and a trained eye for brutal cinematic violence. This film is cutting edge on both senses.
— However… Desormeaux-Poulin and Gaudette are burdened by mostly unlikable, uninteresting characters. The story’s melodrama tests one’s limits of suspension of disbelief, however dramatic real-life sectarian violence in the Middle East may be.
? Can one and one make one? Unfortunately, it can…