Incendies Review


Incendies (meaning “destruction by fire”) was Canada’s representative in last year’s Best Foreign Language Film race at the Oscars, and it’s an absolute punch to the gut. The film is all story and plot—there’s no clear, obvious message coming from writer/director Denis Villeneuve. But the film doesn’t need one, for it more then gets by with its compelling characters, strong and unusual structure, and a few truly moving moments.

Told in a jumbled (but sensical) manner, the film follows a pair of twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), who just lost their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). Upon her death, they are each given a letter. Jeanne’s is to be delivered to their father—whom they believed to be dead their whole lives. Simon’s belongs to a brother neither knew they had. Simon wants to open the letters and put this situation behind them. Jeanne, however, heads to her mother’s village in Lebanon and begins asking some questions.

The story of the twins is intercut with Nawal’s. We meet her just as her boyfriend is murdered by religious extremists. We then find out she’s carrying his child, and she’s shamed, presumably both for the act of pre-marital sex and the fact that it was with someone with different religious beliefs. She gives up their baby for adoption, a decision she regrets almost immediately, and she spends most of the next few years trying to track him down. This leads her down a dangerous path, ultimately leading to a 13-year prison sentence, where she’s tortured horribly but fights back with music. “The Woman Who Sings” becomes her monicker, one that’s equally loved and detested by those in her country, and one that could ultimately hold the key to Jeanne and Simon learning what they need to know about their family’s history.

The way Incendies is constructed turns what would ordinarily have been straight drama into a mystery. I know some reviewers faulted this, calling the film manipulative. And I suppose it is. I took some issue with the resolution, which feels a bit much, but for most of the film, I was fully engaged, and I credit the mixed-up chronology for that.

Two out of three ain’t bad as far as great performances go, right? Lubna Azabal (as Nawal) and Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin (as Jeanne) are terrific. Hard to single either out as better than the other, but I’d argue the latter does a little more with less to work with. Unfortunately, I didn’t think Maxim Gaudette (as Simon) measured up to the high bar set by his castmates. He has even less to do than Desormeaux-Poulin, but he’s just not convincing. In one key scene late in the film, he goes totally emotionless. I didn’t get it, and it wasn’t the only time I took issue with a decision of his.

Incendies isn’t a political film, but it definitely condemns war and religious extremism. It also speaks toward the everlasting power of love. But all of that is secondary to top-notch storytelling. That’s Incendies—plain and simple. If that’s not your thing, it’ll be a long two-plus hours. Otherwise, you’ll likely eat it up the same way I did.

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