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.