There are many metaphors applied to humanity’s study of the past. In the opening lines of The Go-Between (1953), L.P. Hartley opines that “the past is a foreign country: they do things different there”. In The Aetiology of Hysteria (1896), Freud likens the role of the psychoanalyst to that of a conquistador or antiquarian:
Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half-effaced and unreadable inscriptions… He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set the inhabitants to work with these implements. Together with them he may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried.
Both metaphors present the process of historical detection as a voyage into territories unknown. Today, these metaphors ring hollow through a combination of over-use and changing attitudes to the wider world. These days, the world is a village and no two parts of the village are ever more than a plane-flight away. However, in the days of Hartley and Freud, the world was a much larger and scarier place. Were one to update Hartley’s dictum for contemporary usage one would most likely say something like “the past is an oceanic trench: who knows what lies buried in the dark?”
Nowhere is the past’s peculiar edge more evident than when it protrudes from the wreckage of a life recently concluded. When a parent dies, the children move in and sort through their things. This process of sorting generally uncovers all kinds of facts from the actively forgotten to the merely mislaid. People lead complicated lives and these lives are seldom fully encapsulated by the short amount of time that people know each other. To look into a loved-one’s past is to uncover things about them that we would rather not know, things that force us to confront unpleasant truths about ourselves. Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies is a film about a voyage into the past and the changes that such a voyage can bring to otherwise blissfully ignorant lives.
Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne Marwan (Melissa Desormaux-Poulin) are twins. Born to a difficult and complex woman named Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabel), the pair grew up in Canada where the heat of their mother’s unpleasantness forged a profound bond of filial devotion. However, despite their closeness, the twins react very differently when their mother dies and the executor of her will reveals her final wishes. The will begins by explaining that youth is a knife buried in one’s throat in so far as it is difficult to remove it without dying in the process. This mysteriously poetic statement constitutes a mystery that can only be solved when Simon and Jeanne travel to Lebanon in order to track down their long-lost father and Nawal’s previously unmentioned son. Simon reacts with outrage and refuses to help; his mother was difficult her entire life and this latest eccentricity is deemed to be nothing more than a ghoulish attempt at capturing the pair’s attention from beyond the grave. Jeanne, on the other hand, remains true to her background as a mathematician and expresses an uncanny eagerness to solve the mystery of Nawal’s eldest son. Incendies chronicles the twins’ journeys through Lebanon and into their mother’s astonishing past.
Based on the play Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, Villeneuve’s film uses two dovetailing narratives. The first tells the story of Nawal’s youth and the second tells the story of the twins’ attempts at uncovering this youth.
Nawal begins the film as naïve Christian peasant who falls in love with one of the Palestinians seeking refuge in Lebanon. Fully aware that her Maronite family will not tolerate her involvement with a Muslim refugee, Nawal decides to elope but she is rapidly tracked down by two of her male relatives who shoot the Palestinian in the head for the sake of family honour. Prostrate with grief and secretly pregnant, Nawal agrees to surrender her child for adoption in return for permission to leave the village and receive a proper education in the city. Hopeful that Nawal will one day return and reclaim her son, Nawal’s grandmother places a tattoo on the infant’s heel, a sign of his true heritage and of the bond of affection that ties him to his real family.
Once in the city, Nawal proves to be an intelligent student and she soon finds herself being employed in one of the student newspapers supporting Lebanese Christianity against the rising tide of Nationalism. When civil war finally breaks out, Nawal decides to leave Beirut and go in search of her son. However, along the way she gets caught up in the fighting and witnesses an atrocity that not only deprives her of her faith, but forces her into the arms of a Muslim warlord who sends her to spy on a right-wing Christian politician. For months, Nawal works as a governess who teaches French to the politician’s children. Then, she receives the call and calmly walks downstairs and shoots the politician in the head. Jeanne is understandably perturbed by the revelation that her mother spent years of her life incarcerated as a political prisoner, but the meat of the film lies chiefly in the twins’ reactions to what happened once Nawal arrived in prison.
Simon and Jeanne have different reactions to their mother’s final request because the narrative requires the opening of a second front. Reluctant and still largely hostile to his mother’s eccentricities, Simon boards a plane and arrives in Beirut only to discover that a local notary has been hired to do the investigative legwork. Indeed, now that Nawal is revealed to be a prisoner, the facts of her life are a matter of administrative record. Her fate is bound up with that of the Lebanese state and those agents who would influence it.
This may sound like hyperbole, but Simon and Jeanne soon discover its fundamental truth as Nawal is revealed to be something of a Muslim folk hero: a Muslim woman who sang through years of torture at the hands of tyrants, a woman who never broke until the very end of her life when she saw something that could not be forgotten or understood.
Incendies is very much a detective story and as such, to reveal the ending would be to unravel the entire plot of the film. Normally, I do not bother with spoiler warnings but the intensity and power of the twist in this film’s tale is such that I cannot deprive potential viewers of its visceral impact. Indeed, the fact that so much of this film’s power hinges upon its final twist is something of a weakness as Simon and Jeanne never really come across as anything other than narrative devices allowing Villeneuve to structure his narrative in a clever manner. We never fully grasp why it is that Simon and Jeanne react so differently to the truth about their mother and when the ultimate truth is revealed, the impact on the children is glossed over in a rather disappointing manner. The force of Hartley’s dictum lies not in the simple fact that the past is not home but in the subjective experience of that visceral foreign otherness. These are two kids from modern-day Canada thrust into 1970s Lebanese politics, politics that continue to shape and reshape the Middle East with every passing year. Incendies contains some wonderful moments of culture shock when the Canadian kids come face to face with their family heritage, particularly wonderful is the scene where Jeanne turns up on the doorstep of the Marwan family only for the mood to cool the second the exact nature of her familial ties become apparent. Similarly superb is the scene where Simon is called upon to feel his way into the political orbit of an ageing warlord. Never has a lot of tea-drinking and shoulder-shrugging seemed so tense and meaningful. However, while Incendies tries to communicate the twins’ sense of shock at discovering the truth about their mother, their lack of depth as characters makes the discovery somewhat generic. Indeed, we are moved by the story of Narwal but not by that of her children. Their outrage is simply too understandable to be meaningful, they are empty vessels for our own discoveries.
What elevates Incendies above both its historical tourism and detective genre trappings is the elegance of the script (credited to Villeneuve but based of Mouawad’s play with ‘script consultation’ by Valerie Beaugrand-Champagne) and the beauty of the camerawork. As you can probably see from the screen-captures, Incendies is a film that is composed with an astonishing amount of care. The film’s direction is neither stylised nor complex, Villeneuve simply dots the narrative with images of astonishing beauty. This beauty also pervades the script as characters lapse into heart-rending poetry that seems both utterly contrived in its theatricality and utterly deserved in its power to capture mood and communicate ideas. Though far from flawless, Incendies is a thoughtful and alluring film that captures all the pain and joy that can come from laying someone to rest once and for all. Its ending is a deluge of bittersweet energy that is so perfectly judged that it leaves other weepies in the shade. So much sadness and savagery, so beautifully conveyed.