Denis Villeneuve Week continues here on Plot and Theme with Incendies, the final foreign language film from the director, and his only film to receive an Oscar nod (Best Foreign Language film in 2010). The film tells the story of twins who receive a cryptic message in their mother’s will: their father and brother are still alive, and the twins must seek them out and deliver letters to them. A circuitous journey through an unnamed Middle Eastern country commences, and as the twins untangle myth from fact amid civil and religious war, the truth of their mother’s life is beyond their wildest dreams – and nightmares.
Unfortunately, the true power of Incendies is only revealed through intricate plot details which would result in serious spoiling of a great mystery story, and I would like to leave that wonderful journey for the five of my readers who will actually be inspired to seek out this absolute gem of a film. So, in lieu of particularly important plot details, I will relegate my commentary to stylistic choices by Villeneuve and isolated scenes from the film.
The first stylistic choice the leaps out at the viewer is one that will not be foreign to lovers of Villeneuve: non-linear storytelling. The film begins with the death of Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) and the reading of her will to her two children Jeane (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette, in his second film with Villeneuve). But, through multiple flashbacks, her character arc anchors the entirety of the narrative. Sometimes we learn information before the twins do through scenes with Nawal decades earlier, and sometimes we learn the information in the present with them. By alternating the source of the information, Villeneuve is able to exploit both dramatic irony (when we know more than the twins) and genuine surprise (when we do not). It is a masterful way to reveal information in a mystery story without becoming stale.
Another hallmark of Villeneuve is his insistence on portraying the potential harshness of reality without pulling any punches, and Incendies certainly delivers in that regard. At the heart of the conflict of the film is a religious war in the unnamed Middle Eastern country between Christians and Muslims, and Nawal finds herself alternating sides, seeking revenge,and plunging into despair in response to the senseless tribal violence and religious skirmishes that erupt around her. In one scene, she dons her cross necklace, quickly applies a hijab, and boards a bus of “fellow” Muslims. Then, when the bus is stopped by her “fellow” Christians and ruthlessly fired upon and set aflame, she relinquishes her hijab and reveals her true religion. They let her off the bus and she manages to pretend that a young girl is her child in order to save her, but as the girl rushes back to the smoldering bus to reunite with her true mother she is deftly shot down in her tracks. Nawal is left sobbing in the coarse desert sand.
These detailed scenes and stylistic elements intimate that Incendies is all bummer all of the time, but nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, there are some brutal sequences, but these exist specifically in order to establish a feeling of nearly insurmountable hatred from our protagonists. But, like in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the extent of the brutality only magnifies the wonder of the eventual absolution. The fact that our heroes experience these horrors and emerge with nothing but love and happiness in their hearts is a profound defense of the power of the good in man. Villeneuve again champions the power of love over hatred (as he had with the similarly grim Polytechnique), and the result is undoubtedly his greatest work to date.
Incendies continued Villeneuve’s amazing streak at the Genie Awards, being nominated for ten and winning nine, including another Best Picture, Best Direction,and Best Adapted Screenplay for Villeneuve. As the director’s last film exclusively in a non-English language (the film is mostly French, but has extended Arabic sequences as well), its nomination for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language film category could be seen as a stepping-stone for Villeneuve to create English-language films for a wider audience, and he certainly has not looked back since. This film was magnificently rewarding, and I dare say it ranks as Villeneuve’s absolute best. Brave the subtitles and barbarism, and you too shall be gifted a seminal movie-watching experience.