Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Movie Review: Incendies

Incendies ****
Directed by:
Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Denis Villeneuve based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad.
Starring: Lubna Azabal (Nawal Marwan), Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin (Jeanne Marwan), Maxim Gaudette (Simon Marwan), Rémy Girard (Notary Jean Lebel), Abdelghafour Elaaziz (Abou Tarek), Allen Altman (Notary Maddad), Mohamed Majd (Chamseddine), Nabil Sawalha (Fahim), Baya Belal (Maika).

Incendies is a film about long buried family secrets that only come out after death. The film opens in a notary’s office, where the executor of the will of Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) has called her two children, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) will finally find out about the life their mother led before they were born. She had some strange requests about how she wants to be buried, saying that people, who do not keep their promises, do not deserve a proper burial. Then the real bombshells start to drop - a note is given to Jeanne and she is told to track down her father, who they thought was dead, and given him the letter. Another letter is given to Simon, and he is told to track down their brother, who they didn’t know existed, to give him the letter. Once they do that, a final letter will be given to them, and their questions will be answered. Simon wants nothing to do with this request - which he considers to be another insane gesture from a mother he always thought wasn’t quite right. Jeanne though, takes the request seriously - and is soon headed to the Middle East to try and fulfill her mother’s last wishes. What she finds there is truly shocking.

The country that Nawal is from is never named, and the cities involved all have fake names. And yet, if you know anything about the Middle East, it becomes clear that it was inspired by the strike in Lebanon. The movie is told in parallel stories - one involving Nawal, and everything that led her to raising her twins in Canada, and another tracking Jeanne’s journey back to her mothers homeland, and unraveling the truth. Nawal’s story is the more compelling of the two - anchored by a terrific performance by Lubna Azabal, as a Christian, who sees her country, get thrown in a war where there are no winners. As a teenager, she gets pregnant by a Muslim refugee, and shames her family. Her brothers kill her beloved, and would have killed her as well, if her Grandma hadn’t intervened. She is forced to give up her son for adoption - but promises to find him again one day. Once the rebels start attacking, she goes on a cross country odyssey to find her baby. Jeanne recreates her mother’s journey, starting in her home town, and starts to wonder why the people in her home town think her mother was a disgrace. As she starts to piece the puzzle together, she wonders about her mother really was.

Director Denis Villeneuve has become one of the best directors working in Canada today. His previous two films, Maelstrom (2000) was a surreal drama with a great performance by Marie Josee Croze, and Polytechnique (2009), a gut wrenching black and white film about the massacre at Montreal’s Polytechnique School in 1989, both won the Genie for Best Film, and I would bet Incendies does the same thing as well. As good as Maelstrom and Polytechnique were, and both were excellent films, Incendies is a huge leap forward for him as a director. This is his most complex film, a film that spans decade and continents, and effortlessly tells two parallel stories. He adapted Wajdi Mouawad’s play, but does so in a way that the result does not feel stage bound at all. He opens it up to such an extent that it doesn’t feel like a play at all. It has an epic scope that could only be accomplished cinematically. With David Cronenberg mainly working outside of Canada, and Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand being somewhat scattershot in their output, I think you could even argue that at this point, Villeneuve is the best filmmaker working in Canada right now.

The film’s climax will certainly be talked about - and I wonder how audiences are going to react to it. It is quite clear that it is a disturbing climax, with the secrets getting much darker than we expected even as the film grew darker as it moved along. And yet, there is a strange logic to the films progression, and its final scenes. As disturbing as it is, it makes sense - and it rips your heart out. Incendies is not only the best Canadian film of the year by far - it is only of the best films from anywhere in the world this year.

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