Incendies is a film by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, losing out to Susanne Bier’s In A Better World. Set in and around the Israeli conflict, the film, not unlike Samuel Maoz’s fantastic Lebanon, considers the human effects of the conflict over the conflict itself.
The story follows two siblings (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) as they journey to the Lebanon to uncover their dead mother’s (Lubna Azabal) past. She has left them two letters, one for their father and another for their brother, whom they did not know existed. As they try to deliver these letters, the film intercuts between them and their mother’s life as she moves from country girl to assassin to political prisoner.
The film is set in the midst of political upheaval and frequent violence. With its slow pace and its preoccupation with females in war-torn landscapes, a sense of lose is most prevalent. Violence is sporadic and filmed with an eye for realism rather than the exploitation of clearly engineered set-piece filmmaking. Trauma and memory are the film’s themes and it deals with them with a lot of respect. Intriguingly, the film does not specify the location it is set in, giving the film an apolitical stance. It carefully avoids a bias in any direction, preferring instead to remain a deeply personal work. As well as this, the film is relatively slight in sentimentality for the majority of its running time. As for the performances, Lubna Azabal powerfully portrays a woman lost in the conflict and unsure of where she stands. Désormeaux-Poulin and Gaudette have the more thankless roles but are well equipped to make their characters much more than just mere ciphers.
One of the films more odd features is its refusal to be just another wartime melodrama. From its unspecified space and the rather out-of-place though strangely effective Radiohead music video sequences, the film tries to dodge categorization and the stagnancy of similar Oscar dramas. These touches do not always work but they are an interesting feature in the film.
Unfortunately, the film comes to increasingly resemble a trashy melodrama with plot twists that change everything that as gone before. These twists are hopelessly contrived, though admittedly possible given the situation, and hamper the carefully low-key and human drama that has come before. They feel like a major third-act diversion, in which the film drops its themes and preoccupations for the sake of an emotional peak at the close. The film never really recovers and it is a real pity, downgrading the work to a ‘good’ film when it should have been ‘great.’
Though the film never recovers from its lapse into ‘TV Movie of the Week’ histrionics, it remains an interesting film in which the destruction wrecked on the landscape mirrors the destruction done to the inner landscapes of the characters. A sensitive work that never feels exploitative of its situation or characters, it engenders a feeling of good faith that sees it through its less successful moments.