Incendies is a film that leaves an indelible impression on its audience. One of the most elegant and potent anti-war films of recent years, it announces the arrival of a great talent in Denis Villeneuve (Maëlstrom, Polytechnique). The French-Canadian filmmaker has adapted Wajdi Mouawad’s critically acclaimed play Scorched into a beautifully cinematic film, full of searing imagery and heartbreaking truths.
When their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal, Paradise Now) dies, twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette, Polytechnique) are shocked to discover that the father they thought was dead is alive and they have a brother they never knew existed. As part of her will, Nawal asks her children to return to her Middle Eastern homeland (fictionalised in the film, the country bears a strong resemblance to Lebanon) to find their relatives and give them each a letter. Simon refuses, angry at what he sees as his mother’s final act of senility. However, Jeanne departs Quebec on a mission to resolve her own curiosity and satisfy her mother’s dying wish.
The film is structured in titled segments, skillfully cutting between Nawal’s past life and the quest of the twins in the present. Unavoidably, it is Nawal’s story that has the greater emotional impact. Her journey is set against the backdrop of civil war, which echoes the atrocities that occurred in the 1970s conflict between the Christian and Muslim populations in Lebanon. Villeneuve takes instruction from the play and does not name the conflict or location specifically. If this choice adds a universal element to the film’s exploration of war and its terrible civilian loss, it is Lubna Azabal’s remarkable performance that gives it a sense of the personal. Last seen in the similarly devastating Paradise Now (2005), Azabal’s unfussy but emotional resonant performance gives the film both its hero and its heart.
Incendies is a mystery, a family drama, a gritty, realistic period piece, and by the end, an almost operatic tragedy. It is testimony to Villeneuve’s immense skill that he maintains control of the tone, pace and general credibility, even in spite of the somewhat unlikely, coincidental plot points that stack up towards the end. If Incendies is not a perfect film, it is a bold, immersive, searching, angry and haunting one; all signs of great filmmaking.
Incendies is released in Australia on April 21st
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Lubna Azabal, Rémy Girard.