When notary Lebe (Rémy Girard)l sits down with Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) to read them their mother Nawal's (Lubna Azabal) will, the twins are stunned to receive a pair of envelopes – one for the father they thought was dead and another for a brother they didn't know existed. In this enigmatic inheritance, Jeanne sees the key to Nawal's retreat into unexpected silence during the final weeks of her life. She immediately decides to go to the Middle East to dig into a family history of which she knows next to nothing. Simon is unmoved by the posthumous mind games of a mother who always distant and cold. However, the love he has for his sister is strong, and he soon joins her in combing their ancestral homeland in search of a Nawal who is very different from the mother they knew.
Incendies, the new film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, begins with an act of rebirth that’s also a deaths sentence: in an empty room young boys have their heads shaved by older soldiers for the purpose of induction. The camera tracks towards them, drawing gazes bereft of youthful innocence, and the soundtrack is Radiohead’s 'You and Whose Army?', a song that turns political rage into nightmarish delusion and triumph into spectral defeat. It’s a tragic, perfect fit for what ensures, a film where violent acts on a personal and public level only further the existing cycle, and family is as much a burden as a source of consolation.
In adapting Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, Villeneuve has given the text the space it needs, the pointed can be poignant. It is still a tragedy, but with the open landscape it unfolds in and the ability to cut back and forth between both countries and eras the story doesn’t feel like it’s bearing down on you. It leaves you, like the protagonists, haunted.
'There are no epitaphs for those that do not keep their promises," reads the will of Narwal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), a single mother who emigrated to present day Canada from the Middle East and struggled to raise two children, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette). She wants to be buried face down, without a coffin or headstone, a request that her distant children understand no more than many of her actions while alive. But her employer, a diligent notary, Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), also has posthumous requests for the siblings: Narwal wants letters delivered to the father they have never heard acknowledged and an older brother they never knew existed.
Sealed letters, requests in a will – these are the conceits of a mystery, but while Villeneuve acknowledges the structure this entails, he’s more interested in showing how Narwal came to this point and he does so by exploring the narrative from either end, alternating between extended flashbacks to Narwal’s coming of age in the 1970s and '80s set against Jeanne’s contemporary enquiries in her mother’s homeland.
The country is never named – with its civil wars, massacres and religious strife, it is plainly Lebanon – but Villeneuve doesn’t want to deal with national history. He’s interested in how individuals can become caught up in a cycle of violence and revenge. His technique is centered on calm, considered scenes – he never surrenders to the hysteria of the moment, never moves the camera unnecessarily. He does not stint on traumatic events, most notably the massacre of a busload of Muslim refugees by armed Christian militiamen that Narwal, a Christian, only escapes from by virtue of her faith. She tries to save a Muslim child, claiming it is her own, but she fails, and the film subsequently suggests that no bond, not even parent and offspring, can remain unsullied.
The performances of Azabal and Desormeaux-Poulin are powerfully connected. Visiting the same places, 25 years and many crimes apart, the daughter learns about her mother’s earlier life, including the acts of retribution she undertook and the punishments she endured. Villeneuve does not leave the story open to contemplation. He closes what he began and accepts that the force of the themes will overcome the contrived plot twists required in the final 15 minutes. He falls just short of succeeding, but Incendies is such a powerful work that even getting close makes for a telling viewing experience.