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Non-Review Review: Incendies

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Incendies looks absolutely beautiful. The cinematography on show is absolutely stunning. It’s a powerful exploration of the religious divide in Lebanon, and it packs quite a lot of punch. However, as a film, it never really works. It’s structure seems almost illogical, with information often being repeated or rendered redundant, and it works on a series of awkwardly-contrived coincidences which strain the viewer’s credibility (which is especially glaring when the film plays off real-life atrocities). It seems far too assured of its own merits, and could have done with some serious revision before release.

Scorched earth...

The plot follows two separate threads. The first follows two twins (“les jumeaux”) in the wake of the death of their mother. She’s left them very specific instructions, and refuses to allow herself a proper burial until those instructions are met. “It’s unusual,” the notary concedes, but her son Simon insists she was just “f*cking crazy.” Through her last will and testament, their mother compels her children to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Her daughter is tasked with tracking down the pair’s long-lost brother, while her son is given a letter to their (presumed dead) father. And so, while Simon insists his mother was nuts, his sister Jeanne decides to honour her mother’s last wishes and embarks on the journey.

At the same time, we witness the life and times of their mother, Nawal, as she lived through some troubling times in Lebanon. From the birth of her child through to her escape abroad, the movie documents the pain and suffering that she endures, juxtaposing it against the adventures of her children in the region decades later. In doing so, the movie grants us an insight into how much (or little) has changed. As the movie goes on, the audience is stunned by horrible atrocities committed by all parties involved, filmed against an arid (yet beautiful) backdrop.

Taking her shot...

However, the very structure of the film is where we hit the movie’s first major problem. By virtue of the opening scenes of the film, we know that Nawal will survive whatever Lebanon throws at her – and we know that her attempts to find the son given up for adoption will ultimately prove fruitless. So there’s no suspense from her adventure, given that we know how it ends up. You could argue that it’s not the destination we should be interested in – but the movie clearly sets its characters on a quest with a clear end goal. We already know how Nawal’s quest ends (save maybe one cheap trick) before the movie’s even begun.

However, there’s the far more serious narrative problem of repetition. For example, in one scene a school janitor explains the brutal torture that Nawal endured, and the consequences of it. Immediately after this, we spend the next fifteen minutes witnessing what was just described to us. It doesn’t help that the audience is effectively able to leap-frog the characters. The data that Nawal’s children can piece together is ultimately pointless, because we’ve already seen it and reached the conclusion before they did. At least one “twist” is easy enough to figure out before the twins wrap their heads around it. And the film is long enough without seeing something happen and then having another character in another time period exposit it.

Don’t worry, I get the point of all this. “Nothing ends in death,” the notary assures us at one point, and we’re meant to see the film shifting through two different time periods as an example of how nothing has actually changed and how the present can colour the past. I understand this logic, but I can’t help but feel that the present-day sequences would be better relegated to a coda, rather than interspaced against the narrative. It’s Nawal’s journey which gives the film its emotional power, but it’s that same character arc which is thrown out of whack by the interruption of the present-day sequences.

Among the wreckage...

The movie’s central point – that if we forget our past, or hide it (or from it), we will suffer the consequences – is a powerful one, and one which is hugely relevant. There’s a very smart joke made in the film about how the mere existence of notaries two thousand years ago to document something as simple as land ownership might have avoided centuries of bloodshed (as we could just point to the documentation as objective fact). The problem is the way that film addresses this key theme.

Another major problem with the film is the simple fact that it feels awkward and contrived. The sheer volume of coincidences required to make the plot work puts the most mechanical paint-by-numbers Hollywood thrillers to shame, and that’s ignoring some more obvious practical questions which occurred to me (such as how old Nawal was when she went to prison). None of this feels organic or natural. The movie feels consciously designed, and not in an especially fluid manner. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but it doesn’t work when the film is set against the backdrop of a randomly brutal generational conflict – in trying to show us the senselessness of what happened, it seems irrational that the events of the movie would appear so carefully laid out and structured. It beggars belief.

A close shave...

On the other hand, the film does look great. The desert is a harsh place, but director Denis Velleneuve manages to make the burnt-out buses and collapsed rubble seem almost beautiful in a grotesque sort of way. The shots are all framed beautifully, and there’s the sense of an artist at work with camera. Velleneuve manages to craw strong performances from his cast, especially the two female leads, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Lubna Azabel.

It’s a powerful film, but that doesn’t automatically make it a good one. Structurally, the film is just weak. It doesn’t hold together to the slightest bit of scrutiny, and it doesn’t work as a narrative story. I think it could easily have been reworked to help strengthen it, but the flaws in the finished product are so fundamental that they undermine a lot of what the film is going for.

I don’t normally score my reviews, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival does give an “audience award” and asks the audience to rate the film out of four. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, my score is: 2.

5 Responses

  1. Congratulations on being shortlisted Sir! Well deserved

    • Thanks! That was quick on the draw! I’m sure we’ll see you pop up in humour in a moment (which is also more than well deserved).

  2. Good review, and I agree with much that you say. It was a powerful film, but the “coincidences” were a bit too much. Then, too, there’s one real flaw in the plot that would be difficult to overcome, and that is this: would Nawal (who loved her twins, despite everything) have sent them on a quest to confront her first born son — knowing that he was a war crazy guy, a sniper, a torturer, and her rapist (!!) — when there was at least a decent chance that her letters to him might send him completely around the bend and cause him to kill the twins (??) People put in such tortured situations have been known to do such things, after all. Why would she risk that? (And might she not have at least pondered the possibility that leaving the twins in the dark about their own past might be better for them than knowing the truth?) The three letters revealed at the end of the movie are strong attempts to get around these issues, but they don’t quite do it.

  3. We weren’t too concerned about any plot foibles…..until the age difference between father/son and mother/ victim came up – she clearly was not 12 when she had him and their ages physically appeared to close in the film. That was disappointing….

    • Yep. I think that just sorta took me out of the film a bit – as well as the way the film disregarded the policy of “show, don’t tell.” Instead, the film told, then meandered a bit, then showed. It’s just not great cinema.

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