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. As they set out on a seemingly impossible mission to the Middle East in search of their roots, the twins’ travels are mirrored with the story of their mother’s origins – the 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 in an unnamed region, Incendies plays with massive themes on a heart-wrenchingly intimate scale. While evocative images of broken buildings and bombed-out buses stoke the anti-war flames, it’s Lubna Azabal who burns the brightest. As a mother who’s suffered through unimaginable 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 the place of Nawal’s dramatic backstory stirs a far more disturbing exploration of her children’s origins, as the twins learn truth after devastating truth about Nawal’s tragic upbringing.
It’s a downer, to be sure. Credit must also be attributed to director Denis Villeneuve, 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. Crucially, 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 for itself.
Only the film’s final sucker punch revelation threatens the melodrama barometer, relying as it does on really unfortunately coincidences for its power. By then, though, you’ll be too wrapped up in Nawal’s story to really mind. As tragedy goes, it’s hard to bear – but it’s definitely worth it.
Oscar-nominated drama that had Roger Ebert’s backing. Must be good. 4
Harrowing, beautiful and disturbing, though the second hour drags. 4
Elemental and expertly directed, Nawal’s story haunts long after the credits have rolled. 4
Via Little White Lies