Unlike many Foreign Language Oscar nominees, 2011 nominee Incendies doesn’t fit into the tidy Academy-friendly box. Sure, it’s about the horrors of war, but not in the usual way. In its unconventional rhythms, it should be easy to embrace as a daring artistic choice. But even as it builds to a huge revelation, there’s something fundamental missing: an emotional framework for its implications.
Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play opens in Quebec, where twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwad (Maxim Gaudette) are listening to the will of their recently deceased Middle East-born mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). And it packs two startling revelations: the father they had been told was dead is, in fact, alive, and they have a brother. As Jeanne begins searching in her mother’s homeland for her history, flashbacks show us the life Nawal lived as a Christian Arab before and during a nation-dividing conflict, a life her children never imagined she endured.
If you’re not familiar with the context of 1970s Middle East politics, Incendies could prove a bit tricky to sort out as Villeneuve winds through the various allegiances and opposing forces; though the word “Lebanon” is never seen or spoken in the film, the events seem clearly intended to parallel the 1970s Lebanon War. Yet the narrative remains generally compelling as a simple detective story, even as Villeneuve risks letting us in on what Jeanne will discover before she actually discovers it.
The problem is that there’s a crucial part of the story that’s hinted at but never shown: the relationship between Nawal and the twins. Simon’s anger and bitterness suggests the kind of psychological damage that spilled over into their lives, but the story’s big stomach-punch plot twist winds up feeling too gimmicky without a richer framework for its legacy. The horrors that Nawal experienced are powerful to witness, but if Incendies wants to be about making peace with those horrors, the children who discover them need to be more than plot devices.
Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette