Thursday, November 17, 2011

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2011)

For a film that can be so smart, Incendies sure does suffer from some amateurish mistakes. A mystery concerning the unraveling of two twins' lives in the wake of their mother's death, Denis Villeneuve's film splits its focus between past and present as we track the family tree from the Middle East to Québec. Fundamentally, however, this has the effect of not simply either showing or telling the audience the importance of the mother's life and the depth of her secrets but doing both. Essentially, the audience gets every key piece of information twice, if not more so; Villeneuve presents the final twist in at least four different ways, draining the moment of its impact.

The story begins in Québec, with Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) meeting with their late mother's notary (and former boss) as he reads the will. The man calmly reads out the woman's unorthodox wishes, which ask the children to seek out the father they thought dead and the brother they did not know existed. Simon, petulant and nursing a clear resentment for his mother, wants no part of this ridiculous goose chase and leaves his more amenable sister to track down her mother's past in a fictionalized stand-in for Lebanon during its civil war. What Jeanne finds will upend her and her brother's lives.

Villeneuve and cinematographer André Turpin film Incendies with the crisp, almost brittle texture that informs desert-set films these days. Flashbacks place the mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), amid build-ups of armies and militias, the wide, jagged space of rural and rocky areas offering so few places to hide from any number of roving bands who each have their own special reason to kill whomever they stop. Villeneuve arranges haunting shots of static atrocity, from still-smoldering ruins of bombed orphanages to a bus filled with murdered passengers set on fire by extremist Christians.

But the film's real horrors are of a more personal nature. The film moves from a flashback of the mother just before her death to the first glimpse of her early life, and the first thing we see is Nawal's family murdering her Palestinian refugee for getting her pregnant. The brothers nearly kill her as well for shaming the good Christian name of the family, and even though the grandmother spares the young woman from death, she too disparages and attacks Nawal, banishing her after the baby is delivered and taken away from the family. This proves one of the less disgusting tragedies to befall the poor woman, so ignored by the children who do not remotely understand her story.

Incendies works best when it remains firmly with Nawal, patiently absorbing her growth from intelligent but naïve college girl to embittered warrior fighting against her own Christian sect to express her hatred for their actions. Azabal routinely finds untapped reservoirs of strength, her eyes turning ever more steely and her whole body coiling like a caged animal looking for an impossible escape. Nawal's indefatigable resolve in the past only makes her catatonic death in the present all the more mysterious and unsettling. And while the narrative requires the film to keep returning to the children, these constant oscillations hurt the film for distracting from Azabal's intense performance.

They also bring up the aforementioned repetition between exposition and demonstration. We are told in the present of Nawal's torture in a political prison, only to be shown it in the subsequent scene. Alternately, visual clues alert the audience to a revelation minutes before Villeneuve painstakingly makes them clear in dialogue as if he expected no one to fully put it all together until a character openly addressed the issue in dialogue. I can't tell if Villeneuve doesn't realize the dramatic error he's committing or if he just has that little faith in the audience. Either way, the disturbing truth underneath this dysfunctional family mystery loses all of its stomach-churning implications through its constant restatement.

Not that it's a particularly resonant truth, at least outside providing an initial gut reaction. In many ways, Incendies reminded me of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy as played for drama, not thrills. This is not merely for the way in which the film springs a perverse reveal but in the manner it surprisingly serves as a kind of revenge movie. Rather than giving any insight on the Lebanese Civil War or even a deeper understanding of its characters, Incendies is fundamentally a mechanical exercise that cares only for its shocking but meaningless twist. It's a shame, for the film boasts many fine elements, from its solid pacing (even taking into account the overlap that should have been trimmed) to Azabal's fantastic work. For a film that broaches the rarely filmed subject matter of the Middle East's entrenched sectarian violence—as opposed to its oversimplification of religious extremism—Incendies proves frustratingly conventional, casting aside its moments of depth to pursue its myopic narrative to its conclusion. I'm sure I'd have heard gasps from an audience had I seen Incendies in a theater, but I was more engaged gasping at the real horrors of war than the ludicrous development that shoves that conflict aside.

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