June 26th, 2011
Runtime: 141 mins | Director: Denis Villeneuve
Review By Delme Stephenson
‘Incendies’ is undoubtedly one of the finest films of the year. It’s a savagely beautiful, unexpectedly intense cinematic experience. Originally premiering at the 2010 Toronto Film festival it arrives on UK shores this weekend. It has gathered notable critical accolades including its 2011 Oscar nomination for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’. It should come as no surprise that this film not only lives up to expectation but surpasses them.
The film follows two narrative threads that frequently intertwine, contrast and reflect one another. After the death of their mother, twins Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désrmeaux-Poullin) are both in attendance at the reading of her will. Family friend and executor of the will, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), gives them each an envelope. Both contain letters written by their late mother, intended to be handed to two previously unknown persons. Jeanne is to hand her envelope to their father and Simon to their brother. These two unusual requests take them on a journey from their homeland in Montreal to their roots in the Middle East.The other narrative focuses on Jeanne and Simon's mother, Nawal Marwan (fantastically realised by actress Lubna Azabal). As one character states, “Death is never the end of a story…there are still traces.” We follow Nawal on her odyssey in a Middle Eastern region caught in the midst of war and violent religious conflict.
Originally a theatre production, written by Lebanese born Wajdi’s Mouwad, ‘Incendies’ can be translated as ‘Scorched’ in English. A success in Quebec it was boldly adapted for the screen and directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve. It is both a visually stunning and well written piece. The editing between the two stories and different timelines is masterfully achieved as is the cinematography which contrasts a cold and bleak Montreal with the warm and earthy feel of its Middle Eastern setting. The contradiction between both settings is obviously paradoxical in nature and feeds into the primary theme of the film. The sound editing is also of note, as it picks up on ambient sounds and highlights the naturalism of the film. It is subtly and skilfully used throughout. However for a film that uses contrasts in almost all aspects to deliver an emotional or cinematic impact, it fails with the inclusion of a few Radiohead songs, which are not needed and feel oddly out of place. However, this is only a minor quibble.
This has not been a heavily marketed feature film despite the nature in which it has been critically received. It does not have the marketing budget of the latest Hollywood Blockbuster, and why should it? This is not a particularly bad thing; strangely I believe part of the film’s success lies in its unanticipated tone. Those seeking shelter from the latest big budget Superhero film or latest CGI animated superstar voiced extravaganza and their repetitive themes of ‘finding oneself’ should perhaps look towards ‘Incendies’. Yes. It is a film about ‘finding oneself’ and the journeys we take to get there. Yet, it is also a damn good thriller that tries to tackle a deeper darker theme: the effect conflicts based on religious beliefs have on individuals. It suggests the results are often senseless, producing a never ending cycle of anger, rage and retribution. It’s a remarkable, well made film that delivers.