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Incendies (2011) [9/10]

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Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard

My Rating: 9/10

In short: Powerful drama about the frailty of family

Denis Villeneuve’s new drama Incendies has become a hit with critics and audiences. Released early this year, it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars but lost to Susanne Bier’s equally brilliant drama In a Better World. Many cried foul at this corruption, believing Incendies was more deserving. It’s really anyone’s opinion.


Villeneuve’s drama is one of the most shocking and moving of recent years. It focuses on two fraternal twins, Jeanne and Simon, who in their mother’s will, discover they have a brother they didn’t know about, and that their father, thought to be dead, is still alive. The film cuts between the two siblings as they begin their search, and their mother Nawal when she was alive, in her search for her missing first son and her identification as a political assassin with an agenda. The film is one of many of recent years to draw on true events in the past, such as wars, to bring their own story into, and it perhaps does it better than all of them, capturing the horror of certain unforgivable events, but also remaining curiously and wisely distant.

The twins’ search is at first slow and uneventful, but eventually leads them to dark truths about their history and the history of their birth country, evoking images first seen in the film’s moving opening. The movie is ostensibly a mystery thriller, with a few twists scattered throughout. However, Villeneuve manages to steer his cast clear of the usual plot devices of the genre and create a wholly original, engrossing film that never lets up or feels tiresome. Just as Villeneuve attempts to distance us from understanding the motives behind some horrific events, the twins are distanced from communication in the unnamed country they’ve arrived in, seeing as they speak French and everyone else speaks Arabic. There’s a hint in every single person they come across that they know the truth, and if only the siblings had asked the right question, spoke the right words, known the right language, they would’ve received their answer sooner. But the gap of communication remains mockingly wide, resulting in a scattered blur of words and awkward questioning.

Nawal’s story is by far the more interesting, but adversely, the siblings’ story seems more relevant and mysterious. We look for answers about what the twins’ are looking for in Nawal’s story, but Villeneuve refuses to give us big chunks of the answer, just small pieces of a large and complex whole. His direction is fantastic, using handheld camera and mainly long or medium shots to maintain a truth or realisation that is out of reach. When a child is shot in the face, we see it from far away, rather than up close, making us powerless to help the child and also feel foolish for staying so distanced from the act.


My favorite scene is when Simon finds out the truth and tells it to his sister in the form of a deceptively simple riddle. There is a moment of silence after he delivers the line, and then Jeanne suddenly utters a sharp, piercing gasp that made me jump in my seat. The truth comes as a shocking blow to both of them, a sharp slap that leaves us silent in the corner, wanting to be alone with our thoughts. But the twist is far less interesting than the development of the plot, of course. It is little more than a twist, we realize, and there are far more shocking events throughout the film that also call into account an absence of morality and sense.

That’s what the film is about… that’s what it cries out for. Nawal doesn’t want her children to go through what she went through, but she wants them to feel the pain of the truth, a pain that she felt one day at a swimming pool when she saw a man’s foot and discovered the truth for herself. Their journey is a long and conscious one. When it is played parallel to Nawal’s journey, the dangers that befall her make Simon and Jeanne’s mission seem all the more unsafe. The editing of these sequences is well-done, and the cinematography, as I mentioned before, is excellent in creating an unsettling mood.

Incendies is a movie that will stay with me for a while. It puts into our heads the unsettling thought that we do not know the truth, nor will we ever, that there are things being kept from us that perhaps we don’t want to know. I think the twins, standing over the fresh grave of their mother, thought quietly how much they wished she hadn’t told them what she had, but in the end we can see Nawal in our heads, nodding solemnly that it needed to be done.

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