Sunday, May 15, 2011

Incendies (Sunday, May 15, 2011) (31)

The French-Canadian film Incendies, adapted for the screen and directed by Denis Villeneuve from a play by by Wajdi Mouawad, is a very interesting exploration of a family's complicated history. The film opens with twins Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) sitting with the lawyer and friend of their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabel) in his Montreal office, after she has recently died. He tells them that her estate will be split between them equally, but that they have to search for their father (who they presumed was dead) and brother (who they didn't know existed) in her native Middle-Eastern country. It seems their mother had an eventful life before she immigrated to Canada, a life that included a lost son.

At first they are dumbstruck that their mother kept these people from them, then they are angry that she was "making things difficult from beyond the grave". She was probably not a wonderfully loving mother to them, and hunting for their family members is the last things they want to do.

Jeanne sets out first to find the brother, going to the mother's remote village (in a country that is given no name on purpose, but is something very much like Lebanon) to get information from anyone who might remember her. She finds that her mother was an outcast who has no friends left where she came from. As the story unfolds to the twins and to us, we realize that their mother was a political activist who left a trail of pain behind her.

The structure of the film is very complex and not-totally linear, making it sometimes difficult to establish place and time as we move from one chapter to another. We see Jeanne flash back to a moment just before her mother's death where she was suddenly and literally dumbstruck at a public pool, we then jump to the mother's life back when she was in her twenties and fighting for a rightist Christian agenda in the largely Muslim country (see: Lebanon). This disorientation is important for us to understand how head-spinning these revelations are for the twins. Sometimes the story they are discovering is so strange and unexpected that even they can't believe it.

Still, there is a tension and a sense that we never quite know exactly what we should be knowing but that we are very close, the comprehension equivalent of having a word on the "tip of your tongue". Many of the stories we see or hear are so elliptical and subjective that we never get enough space to figure out a full meaning. I think this is an effective device, but it is a bit showy and overdone at times I really would rather there was a more standard sequence of scenes.

Technically Villeneuve does a beautiful job with the look of the film and the framing of the shots. He uses a lot of hand-held cameras and near-point-of-view shots putting us relatively in the subjective position of the characters (mostly Nawal and Jeanne). He brilliantly uses the frame to conceal parts of bigger images and give us a very interesting selective view of things. This approach is used brilliantly in the climactic moment when the identities of the father and son are revealed. In many ways this style is all used to foreshadow that one shot - a very literary technique used beautifully in the visual here (how nice!).

The penultimate scene of the film ties the story up elegantly, but Villeneuve, unfortunately uses an epilogue that is totally unnecessary and very annoying. After we've just come to the end of a very complicated story, the epilogue has one character reading a letter explaining exactly what we have just seen. It's as if Villeneuve goes from thinking we are the smartest audience in the world to the dumbest in a matter of minutes. Aside from being intellectually frustrating, the epilogue is banal, leaving a very common, simplistic idea in our heads.

I feel like this is a very good movie, but has a bunch of problems that should have been washed out over drafts and re-writes of the script, not to mention stage-productions. This is a beautiful, emotional roller coaster of a story that gets us deeply into this family, but some of its formal qualities are too distancing. I think Villeneuve sometimes tries too hard to impress us rather than just telling a good story.

Stars: 3 of 4

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