Elemental and expertly directed, Denis Villeneuve’s story haunts long after the credits have rolled.
When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on, it’s tragedy. Never were the Bee Gees more insightful, and you can bet your life that if Incendies had been a musical, that shrewd '70s classic would have been its powerhouse theme tune.
Instead, Incendies (meaning ‘fire’ in French) is a grim, involving drama that plays it straight. Canadian twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) have just lost their mother. In her will, Nawal (Lubna Azabal) leaves her children two letters – one for the father they believe is dead, the other for a brother they didn’t even know they had.
It’s Nawal’s dying wish that these letters be delivered by Jeanne and Simon, who set out on a seemingly impossible mission to the Middle East in search of their roots. Meanwhile, the twins’ travels are mirrored with the story of their mother’s origins – those devastating events that shaped her into the distant, troubled woman her children grew up with.
Set against the backdrop of a fictional – but devastatingly familiar – civil war, Incendies dabbles in massive themes, tackling them on a wrenchingly intimate scale. While evocative images of broken buildings and bombed-out buses stoke the anti-war flames, it’s Belgian actress Azabal who burns the brightest.
As a mother who’s suffered overpowering trauma – and been unable to explain it to those closest to her – Azabal is a revelation. She plays both the younger and older versions of her character, and drives the narrative with a fiery passion; we feel every trembling lip, every pang of uncertainty as Nawal pitches from one disaster to another.
True, the film’s second half loses energy without her; as the story shifts to focus on her children’s increasingly bizarre expedition, the pacing begins to slow. But in place of Nawal’s dramatic back story emerges a far more disturbing exploration of her children’s own origins. As the twins learn truth after devastating truth about Nawal’s tragic upbringing, their own tale is afforded depth and detail.
It’s a downer, to be sure. Credit to director Denis Villeneuve as well, then, who ensures that his slowly unfolding mystery is carefully measured out, and lifted by across-the-board terrific performances. The result is utterly absorbing, revelling in dusty visuals and intimate framing. Incendies never falls into the trap of becoming just another movie about the futility of war, refusing to overtly comment on the heartbreak of conflict, while letting its upsetting content speak largely for itself.
Only the film’s final sucker punch revelation threatens the melodrama barometer, relying as it does on really unfortunate coincidences for its power. By then, though, you’ll be too wrapped up in Nawal’s narrative to really mind. As tragedy goes, it’s hard to bear – but it’s definitely worth it.
Played in the Official Competition at Cannes and has Roger Ebert’s backing. Must be good.
Harrowing, beautiful and disturbing, though the second hour drags.
Elemental and expertly directed, Nawal’s story haunts long after the credits have rolled.