Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Written By: Denis Villeneuve, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad
Starring: Lubna Azbal, Melissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, and Remy Girad
Directory of Photography: Andre Turpin, Editor: Monique Dartonne, Production Designer: Andre-Line Beauparlant, Original Music: Gregorie Hertzel
Rated: R for language and a lot of graphic violence.
Incendies, a French word that translated to “scorched,” opens with a set of young boys having their heads shaved, beginning training as child soldiers. We’re in an unnamed country, though writer-director Denis Villeneuve makes enough allusions to make it Lebanon, and one of the children stares at us as the camera moves closer to him. It’s an inciting incident for the film, a brutal sting that demands us to not look away at any brutality, and for a film that is an assault in terms of its atrocities, and the film’s questionable intelligence, perfectly sums up its difficult nature.
Incendies already has its defenders—the Canadian film was one of the five nominated for a foreign language Oscar earlier this year—but its overwrought melodrama and lack of true political sensitivity approach laughable proportions. The performers are genuine, and Mr. Villeneuve certainly has good intentions, but the film lacks the subtlety to really question the actions it makes, and its lack of context, an attempt to make the narrative more universal, hinders its chance to make a meaningful statement.
The narrative—a combination of war, mystery, and drama—begins assuredly enough, in the Quebec where two twins, brash and angry Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and more gentle inquisitive Jeanne (Melissa Désormeaux-Poulin), read the will of their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azbal). Nawal has left each a letter, one for the father they thought had been dead for decades, and another for the brother they never knew they had. Well Simon rejects such absurdities, Jeanne takes the challenges and begins a trek across the unnamed country, following the footsteps of her mother. Mr. Villeneuve thus gives us both stories, as we also see Nawal’s upbringing and journey across her country’s civil war, in a series of more and more devastating narrative shocks. Those points become laughable—raising the stakes for its own purpose, and as it reaches its inevitable conclusion, an unbelievable narrative instead of a power about the consciousness of memory.
The fault is not solely in the narrative, which Mr. Villeneuve has adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, but in the way the tone attempts to take on a grandiose and almost mythical structure. Every note is big with a capital B in Incendies, and there’s no room to really question the political motivations or even attempt to see why this situation was happening. By not actually deliberately setting the film in Lebanon’s civil war, the focus centers on the melodrama and the lesson becomes to simplistic. After one plot twist (one I guessed in the first thirty minutes) is revealed, a woman in the audience muttered, “That is what war does.” Unfortunately I could not agree with her—the twist instead attempts to raise the stakes of drama because the filmmaker has not come to terms with the real heart of the politics at play.
True political filmmaking is difficult. To reach the type of sensitivity needed to truly understand many of the 20th century’s complicated and horrendous periods, one must truly engage with their own perception, as well as the overall picture (one that springs to mind is Ari Folman’s animated documentary Walitz with Bashir, which examines the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon war). Mr. Villeneuve, by reaching for the universal and away from the personal, makes softball statements in a hardball world. The joke of the film is on us—what is taken for profound drama is actually a shallow understanding of a complex situation. We are left shocked after two hours of looking at murder, rape, torture, and truly graphic atrocities, but our understanding from what these images mean couldn’t have more clouds.