Starring Lubna Azabal, Maxim Gaudette, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Rémy Girard. 130 minutes. R
Denis Villeneuve takes risks. His last film, Polytechnique, told the story of 1989’s Montreal Massacre, one of the darkest events in Canadian history. His latest feature, which recently received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film, is no different. Incendies is a haunting Greek tragedy that will stay in your system long after the Oscars are over.
When Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) passes away, she leaves an unusual request. Her will contains two letters for her twins, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), to deliver: One is for their father; the other is for their brother. Both are family members the twins didn’t know they had. To fulfil their mother’s last wishes, the pair journeys to the Middle East to find their family, eventually uncovering Nawal’s dark past and revealing their own.
At the heart of Incendies is a story about family. The film goes back and forth between Nawal’s life in Fuad – a fictional Middle Eastern nation believed to be Civil War-era Lebanon – and her children’s present-day trip to the country.
Nawal’s scenes, played by Belgian-born Azabal, are searing. She is a character so mistreated by life that it’s difficult to watch her portions of the film. What’s even worse, however, is witnessing Jeanne unearth her mother’s history in Fuad. Villeneuve’s parallel narrative cuts to the bone, making sense of the word Incendies’ rough translation: “Scorched.”
Unfortunately, the Greek element of the film may be what audiences remember. The staggering twist is blinding, and it’s not what anyone signs up for. Of course, the film’s roots in Wajdi Mouawad’s play, from which it is adapted, may have something to do with the dramatic conclusion.
To say that Incendies is powerful hardly does it justice. Villeneuve’s commentary on the intricacies of family, war and promises is unparalleled. The Quebec filmmaker provides a striking look into a woman’s dark past, expertly revealing a present that may be darker for her children. It’s no wonder that Incendies is up for an Oscar. Even the Academy would have a hard time recovering from Villeneuve’s tragedy. A