Incendies (2010)

*. I like Incendies, but it’s a movie with a really big flaw.
*. I don’t mind the contrived plot, which was taken from a play by Wajdi Mouawad that was in turn inspired by the story of Souha Bechara. Denis Villeneuve was attracted by its likeness to Greek tragedy, which is hard to miss. The coincidences would be hard to take without such classical precedent. We have to believe they are all due to the workings of fate.
*. Then we come to the reveal at the end, which like Greek tragedy (and maybe all tragedies, really) has the story turn inward on itself, being a family tragedy. But my response was not so much surprise as bafflement. I was confused. How did this work?
*. My confusion was based on a misunderstanding of the movie’s time scheme. Let’s outline what happens. Nawal Marjan has a baby that is taken from her. Then she moves to the city and gets involved in politics. This eventually lands her in prison, where she spends fifteen years, at the end of which she is raped and gives birth to twins. Later she moves to Canada, where she gets a job in a law office. The twins grow up. Then Nawal accidentally meets her first child, who turns out to be the guy who raped her in prison. Thus the father of the twins is also their brother.
*. That’s weird, but the revelation has none of the power of the similar reveal at the end of Chinatown. This is because in Chinatown it comes as a real surprise but the logic of it immediately strikes us in the face. In Incendies it’s not a huge surprise and it doesn’t immediately make sense.
*. The problem, the “really big flaw” I began by mentioning, has to do with the dates. Nawal is, I believe, played by the same actress throughout the film, which covers a time span from her teenage years to sometime in her seventies (I assume). This was probably necessary given the film’s fractured time scheme. If they didn’t have this consistency the audience might have gotten lost.
*. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of making the viewer mentally compress the time scheme. In short, I didn’t see how Nawal’s son could be all grown up by the time she’s done her time in prison. I had assumed the time lapse between her giving birth to him and then being arrested was around two or three years. Instead it seems to have been nearly twenty. Then Nihad (her son) at the end seems to be much too young. I know it should all be theoretically possible and that I’m just reading it wrong, but this doesn’t ease my gut sense that it doesn’t add up.

*. I think it’s a testament to Villeneuve’s eye that he’s able to make a story this compelling and powerful out of such improbable and confusing material. He does it with a style that would go on to become his trademark, and in particular a camera whose quiet (but not slow) movement is full of implied threat and casual doom (amplified by some heavy strings). His landscapes, urban or desert, are burned out, and his characters are similarly burnt out, shell-shocked cases. You don’t see too many people smiling in a Villeneuve movie. There’s a pathetic scene in Incendies where Jeanne is invited into a circle of village women to have tea and she seems like she’s almost enjoying the moment before getting slapped down by reality in the form of the village matriarch.
*. It bugs me, but I can overlook the problem I have with the timeline. What I love is the overall flow of the picture, as well as the stand-out set-piece scenes like the harrowing bus massacre and Narwal’s moment of anagnorisis at the pool. Villeneuve’s pacing is a relief coming from the usual hyper-edited Hollywood light show and there’s no denying his eye for the visionary mundane. He asks that we notice things on a human scale, and makes the case for why this is important. As his career took off this was a personal style that he would be hard pressed to defend.

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