Written by Denis Villeneuve, Wajdi Mouawad, and Valerie Beaugrand-Champagne
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Nawal Marwan has died, suddenly and unexpectedly. She was a professor of languages in Quebec, a refugee from the religious wars Lebanon in the 1970s. Her twin children survive her, Jeanne and Simon who are tasked by a notary friend of the family with two envelopes: one for their father and one for their brother. The problem is that they have never known their father, having been told he died in the wars. Additionally, they have no brother that they know of. Jeanne begins the journey, flying to Lebanon and retracing her mother’s steps. Meanwhile, the audience is privy to flashbacks to what happened to Nawal, following her from the days of forbidden love to her eventually involvement against the Nationalist movement in the country. The ultimate truth that is uncovered by Jeanne and Simon will forever shake the foundations of their world and cause them to rethink their entire lives.
If you follow my blog, I don’t need to explain what a massive fan of Denis Villeneuve but I’d only been aware of him post-Prisoners. As part of my journey back to fill in gaps from this decade, I got to view this early work from the director. It is rougher around the edges compared to something like Arrival or Blade Runner 2049, yet it still shows a strong sense of style and that slow burn that make his movies some of my favorites. The opening scene presented almost like a music video with Radiohead’s You and Whose Army? playing against a tableau of orphans being forcible commissioned into the service of war they cannot possibly understand. There is an air of mystery in this scene that will flow through into the rest of the picture.
Where Incendies feels its rockiest is with some of the acting by the actors playing Jeanne and Simon. They aren’t terrible, but you can see either Villeneuve’s developing ability to work with actors or the performers very slight lack of how to adequately convey the emotion of the material. Some moments fall into procedural movie of the week territory, but the film never lingers there for long before bringing us to another scene of great height and emotional conflict. The pillar upon which Incendies does achieve a level of greatness lies with Lubna Azabal who plays Nawal. The Belgian actress finds the perfect space of silence in reaction to the horrors around her so that the audience feels the depths of her desperation.
Villeneuve loves the arid, rocky landscape of Jordan, where the picture was filmed, with its vast stretches of empty desolation. Nawal wanders from the city into the hilly lands of her upbringing and into the desert where her pivotal moment occurs. She’s stuffed into a van headed towards a town that’s been rumored as a haven for Muslims in the country hoping to escape the coup. However, the van is stopped by a Christian militia and Nawal witnesses horrors. Throughout the first part of her journey, she becomes fluid in how she identifies in this conflict. She was raised in the Christian orthodoxy of her ethnic group but, when traveling through Muslim territory, she hides her crucifix necklace to get passage on the van. However, when the militia stops the van, and things begin to go south, she uses the same jewelry to bargain her way to safety. While she is physically unharmed, her psyche is obliterated when she sees what the men do to the rest of the people in the van.
Identity and the falsehoods surrounding the concept are the core theme of Incendies. Nawal’s posthumous letter to her children repeatedly references a failure to be truthful throughout her life, implying that her entire existences had been built on an ever-increasing mountain of lies. She tells the notary, “Bury me with no casket, no prayers, naked, face down, away from the world. Stone and epitaph. I want no gravestone, nor my name engraved anywhere. No epitaph for those who don’t keep their promises.”
Incendies becomes something more substantial than a mystery about a dead parent’s past when the secret is revealed. It is stunning how in a single moment the disparate threads of what is a harrowing reinterpretation of picaresque come together, and we realize the whole film is more akin to a Greek tragedy. The ending forces us to go back to the haunting opening montage and understand what we were seeing, the birth of something horrible. In turn, Villeneuve refuses to label anyone the villain. Is a villain who had no choice in the way their life unfolded truly an evil person? Or are they merely the organic result of the broken, hate-filled system that churned them through. The twins find some modicum of quiet peace, but the “villain’s” state of mind is left more ambiguous, we don’t know how they will process what comes next and we shouldn’t.