130 Minutes // Canada-France // E1 Films Canada
directed and written by Denis Villeneuve
Monday, April 4th, 2011
starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin & Maxim Gaudette
based off the play “Incendies” by Wajdi Mouawad
Denis Villeneuve is nothing if not atmospheric. In 2009, he won me (along with many others) over with Polytechnique – a very calculated feature – and disturbingly so – about 1989 Polytechnique Massacre in Quebec. Though that film was entirely local, the ideas and resonance was close to universal – hitting close to home in America most of all, I’m sure. With Incendies, the story is more worldly in locale, but very singular in its aim and resonance. For those who appreciate a well thought-out plot — though I suppose I’d disagree with the ‘well’ part — and something that engages your mind rather stimulates your senses, this is probably the film for you. However, there are a few significant drawbacks to Canada’s latest Oscar nominee.
The first comes in the film’s setup. A woman passes away — later, in the scene the picture above is from, we gather it’s from great shock; the cause of which is cutely mis-alluded to until the big payoff — leaving her children, twins, with objectives that are forced on them with emotional repercussions. She states in her will that she is to be buried face down without a name on her tombstone unless her children do what is written which to me is like emotional blackmail. Anyway the objectives are: her son, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) is given the task of finding his brother and handing him an envelope, and her daughter, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), is given the task of finding her father and handing him an envelope. Simon resents the ultimatum she’s putting on him and lashes out – breaking away from his obligation and leaving his sister to complete both tasks. His reason is that his life is normal and good and doesn’t want to fly to the Middle East to have his life be made complicated. Though this is said in a normal way without any foreshadowing, the text itself is too apparent and hints that the plot is going to get really messy and their lives made complicated.
So Jeanne sets off with the two envelopes in hand, travels around in No Man’s Land with a picture of her mom asking people if they know her (what would happen if she lost that picture, I don’t know) and gathers clues as to who her father might be and as to who her brother might be. Intermittent in this travel is her mother’s own journey – how she came to give birth to a child before her twins, the circumstances of the Middle East at the time which prevented her happiness, and the religious war that resulted in her fifteen year imprisonment.
For the first two acts where we explore the the journeys of Nawal (the mother played by Lubna Azabal) and Jeanne, Villeneuve excels in grabbing our attention. Sometimes he’ll do it with set pieces — the bus scene is riveting, emotional, though a bit clustered with ideas — but most of the time he’ll do it by being generally evasive of hard facts. It’s a mystery through and through and grabs your interest in a sleuthy way on Jeanne’s part and a macabre, upsetting way with Nawal’s. If nothing else to be remarked on about the journeys of these women its that they’re each emotionally enduring and solicit great performances from the actresses play them – Désormeaux-Poulin is meekness incarnate which gets glibly enlightened — always a nice transition for performers, think Mulligan in An Education or the sort — and Azabal is just entirely sorrowful, yet the kind of woman looking for an affirmation — it’s one of the more rigorous and emotionally draining performances you’ll see all year. For the small, almost nonexistent amount of people who read this review and who have seen the British miniseries Occupation, with this and that it’s clear to me at Azabel has an inherently angelic disposition, so while this role is near unpalatable in concept — she’s witness to rape and murder and essentially goes mad — her natural, loving countenance counters that toughness which results in one of the year’s finest performances.
I’m going to have to spoil the film now to convey what turns this good feature into something poor in conceit. So reader be warned.
What happens in the third act is that Jeanne — and her brother, who comes back on board — learn of that her mother had twins after being impregnated by Abou Tarek, “a specialist” who comes to prison to rape the strong-willed in an attempt to break them. Now, when the twins learn of this, there isn’t any recoiling. It’s as if their mind is dormant. At first I thought they loved their mother and were handling the news well — the news that they were a product of rape — but it turns out that no one in the room drew that conclusion from that information. Later, in a scene where Simon is sitting alone in a room saying to himself “1+1 doesn’t equal 1” his sister walks in curious to what he’s doing. He’s clearly pondering something – something the viewer would have pondered scenes before. Guess what? He figures out that he and his sister were the product of rape because “Twins doesn’t equal one person”. She bursts into frantic tears of realization and hugs her brother fraught with disturbing knowledge. This is made all the more silly when you take into account that Jeanne is a great mathematician. This irony played out poorly in my eyes – just flat out illogical.
Later, when Simon meets with a warlord about Nihad de Mai (his brother, deduced through birth records) the warlord tells him that he was a child brought up to be a soldier who later went on to go insane and started to shoot at everyone who moved with hopes of starting “a crazy war so that his mother would see pictures of him everywhere.” Well, it turns out he was captured by Muslims — being of Christian allegiance — who channeled his insane viciousness so that he could break the wills of the Christian opposition. They changed his name to Abou Tarek.
Now, now, now – this is a cool twist in concept. Mother gives birth to son, son rapes mother unknowingly, mother gives birth to children. It’s upsetting and fascinating. However, you’ve got to take into consideration everything the plot goes through to get to this point. First, the idea that enemies of the man wouldn’t kill him and would allow him access to weaponry and leaders of their side in hopes that he complies with their wants for him. Why should he not just kill them or even run free? Secondly, how the mother finds out that he is her son — this is the shock that sends her to her grave. At the swimming pool — scene above — Nawal spots the scar on the back of his heel as placed by her grandmother after birth so that she could find him when her life was organized. For Abou Tarek to even get to Canada and be so sane as to naturally converse with people at a swimming pool and work happily at a bus station wouldn’t there need to be some huge psychologically reform? There’s none of this at all – he’s sent to Canada after the government found out about the policies the Muslims were employing because they didn’t want to face more severe trouble. He’s the same as he always was – deeply disturbed – but yet resides in Canada so normally? Third, the mother knows that the man that raped her (repeatedly) and is the father of her children is her son because she sees the scar first and sees the face she’d never forget second. It’s a major moral conceit for the mother to know that she’s sending her children on this needless, emotionally and psychologically devastating and life-threatening journey to get this one man two letters that will plague him with emotional ambiguity for the rest of his days. Why she has her children endure all of this because she couldn’t get the letters to him herself, or even endure this simply because she finds it more necessary to do that than preserve her children’s normalcy is an entirely fucked up thing to do, wouldn’t you say? I don’t swear in my reviews, but there’s no word to describe what her wants here entail. To cap it all off — as aforementioned — the children need to do this if they love their mother, if they want her to have a proper pedestrian burial. It’s just so fucked up and the biggest conceit I’ve seen in sometime.
The narrative’s cool, the stories are tidy and interesting, the performances are great, but the twist deconstructs all the good will done beforehand. It’s a hugely conflicting feature with great aspects undermined by poor rationalization. The opening scene is fantastic and the closing scene tries to be. It’s the kind of film that tries to rip out heart and fill the void with a morose worldview, but on the whole I don’t think it tried to accomplish anything more than that. On one hand I really enjoyed the journey and respected what Villeneuve set out to do, on the other I found how he tried to do it disrespectful to his audience and characters alike – but none more so than Mawal.