Lubna Azabal turns in a powerhouse performance in the devastating drama Incendies (2010)
Based on Wajdi Mouawad's epic 2005 stage play 'Scorched', Incendies follows the journey of twins Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulain) as they, in the wake of her death, begin to unravel the mystery of their mothers life. Although it is set within the current Middle Eastern conflict, Incendies is worlds away from the likes of Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009), never naming the country where its tale unfolds and refusing to engage with political ideology. Its conflict is in the home, and its mystery, involving illicit romance and Christian militias, plays out under a veil of pensive silence.
The film opens to the ethereal tones of Radiohead's 'You And Whose Army?' as a gentle panning shot delivers us into the eye of a damaged young boy, whose reflective stare speaks of sadness and anger. There are three dots on his ankle, and these will prove essential to the plot. It's a striking sequence, as good opening as the cinema has ever produced, so it's a marvel that Villeneuve's film only gets better with each passing minute, and delivers a shattering denouement that you'll be pondering for weeks afterwards.
The narrative moves back and forth between two time periods with seamless cohesion; its complexities are unfurled with a lucid hand and Villeneuve has such a clear understanding of storytelling that even the sharpest twists in his tale take the form of slow realizations, dawning upon the audience like they do Simon and Jeanne. It's not a mystery, like many, which sets out to be smarter than the audience, or shock them with a cunning reveal. Its twists hold tragic consequences, and speak of an all-too-prevalent horror. The chilling ending may border on melodrama, but you buy into it, and the revelation will hit you like a knife to the gut.
The two time periods it flits between are Simon and Jeanne's investigations in the present and the younger days of their mother, whose arc moves through the 1970's and 1980's. Every time we see her it's a potential spoiler, so I shan't reveal too much here, but that fact should speak for how tightly composed the narrative is; you won't want to look away for a second.
What I admire most about Incendies - apart from its even-handed political stance and refusal to flounder in self-serving ideology - is how cinematic the film is, and how Villeneuve has translated Mouawad's three-hour play to the screen. Indeed, I can't imagine this story in the theatre. The use of landscape, subtle shifts in colour, the claustrophobic nature of rooms holding secrets, floating camerawork and starling use of music - how could this ever be recreated on the stage? Obviously I haven't seen the play, but I'd be fascinated to.
The performances are terrific, especially Lubna Azabal as mother Nawal, who has the tough task of lending weight to the mystery Simon and Jeanne are unfolding; if she isn't convincing we might lose interest in their emotional dynamic, but Azabal - who English audiences may know from Paradise Now (Abu-Assad, 2005) and Exiles (Gatlif, 2004) - sells every moment, and completely disappears into her character. Gaudette perhaps has the hardest job, as Simon has the least screen-time, but he still manages to create a fully-rounded and believable character.
Beautifully shot by DP André Turpin, Incendies is an engrossing, considered and haunting mystery. One thing I can say for sure: you'll never listen to Radiohead in the same way again.
Incendies was released into UK cinemas on June 24th. This review was originally posted on Essential Writers, but due to an unfortunate maintenance failure on that site I have now reassigned the review to E-Film Blog.