French Canadian cinema tends to produce at least one or two critical darlings a year that do well at the Quebec box office while winning awards at festivals around the world. One of these films, Incendies is doing well, at least by modest Canadian standards. Dennis Villeneuve’s drama swept the Genies (Canadian film awards) and even got an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. The Toronto Film Festival has been screening it at the Lightbox almost daily for a couple of months, a pretty good indication of Incendies‘ warm reception, if not its financial success.
Worth noting is that Villeneuve is not tackling nationalistic subject matter. He’s not making Paschendaele or Score: A Hockey Musical. He’s not even discussing events taking place in Canada like he did in Polytechnique, his last feature. Incendies is based on Canadian-Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad’s play about a brother and sister uncovering their mother’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war. The story begins in Montreal where Nawal Marwan slips into a coma, leaving only a cryptic letter pointing her children homeward. It’s a detective story but not a very talky one. Villeneuve loves his long steadicam shots and orchestrates scene with an eye for visuals, not an ear for the dialogue, which is precise, Spartan or dull, depending on your sensibilities.
So while Incendies is not about Canada, it touches on what is often referred to as “the immigrant experience”; a pretty empty and patronizing phrase that suggests there’s a unifying truth behind the disparate backstories of the hundreds of thousands of newcomers that start new lives in Canada. At the opening of the film Marwan’s children know next to nothing of their cultural and biological heritage. Her daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) tries to step into her mother’s shoes by travelling to her homeland. Though I hope most Canadian immigrants are not escaping from lives as horrible as Marwan’s, there is something in this movie that speaks to the confusing process of discovering the skeletons in your parents’ closets and the disorientation the children of immigrants go through when coming across unexpected secrets, like a missed step in the dark.
But let’s not turn this into a Canadian public service announcement: Incendies‘ main focus is the desperate struggle between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon from 1975-1990. French Canadian company micro_scope co-produced with France’s TS Productions and Phi Group. Until the film’s very end, Marwan’s flashbacks are astoundingly realistic.
The Spoiler of What Spoiled the Story
Marwan spends much of the film searching for the illegitimate child her brothers gave to an orphanage. After the murder of her uncle’s family, Marwan becomes an assassin for the Muslim faction (I think) and assassinates the Christian warlord responsible (I think he’s from the South Lebanese Army). She is taken to one of the notorious Khiam prisons in the south of Lebanon, where a professional torturer named Abou Tarek tries to break her spirit by raping her. In a self-consciously shocking plot twist, it turns out her child was taken from the orphanage to become a sniper for the regional militias, eventually becoming a feared torturer and rapist.
Is he called Abou Tarek? It seems I keep talking a lot about King Oedipus in this blog, but this time Villeneuve leaves me no option. It turns out that Marwan was raped by her own son and her twin children’s step-brother is also their father. As if this were not enough, Incendies concludes by Marwan speaking beyond the grave to her children – including Tarek, who is now a bus cleaner in Montreal. In her letters she stresses the enduring love she feels for them, no matter how they turned out, and while the tone is supposed to be redemptive and even heart-warming, my insides remained cold and queasy. This would be, I think, the equivalent of Sophocles writing an epilogue in which Oedipus smiles and reflects on the happy memories (bar incest) he has of his mother/wife Jocasta.
I don’t think I’m alone in finding the ending unwelcome.
The result is so overly-shocking that the real surprise is the audacity of the filmmaker to commit to such a thing—to reference an early capsule review of ours, it’s more or less lifted from a soap opera.
Mark Holcomb of The Village Voice: (again with the soap-opera comparison)
Nawal’s travails are more in the vein of a Latin American soap opera than Greek tragedy, and Jeanne and Simon’s climactic, genuinely god-awful discovery plays like artistic sleight-of-hand rather than the profoundly tautological revelation it aspires to be.
Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail:
The conclusion of Incendies feels more ingenious than convincing. It’s designed by the artist as puppet-master for worthy didactic reasons. The problem becomes awkwardly obvious in the final flurry of voice-over letters that conclude the film in an unearned shower of healing and reconciliation.
In drama, less if often more, especially if your story includes civilians being burnt alive in buses and children hiding from snipers in urban rubble. Incendies is genuine and forceful until it reveals the emotional manipulation that remains effectively screen behind any resonant work of art.