Incendies (Canada/France 2010)

Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as mother and daughter in ‘Incendies’

If this film’s relatively low-key UK release has slipped under your radar, I urge you to sniff it out and go see. Undoubtedly one of the films of the year in the UK, it claims to be 130 mins long but it seemed like 90 mins. I was gripped for every second. It is a powerful film that often achieves its impact by understatement – but still leaves you awestruck at the end.

The narrative is partly a mystery so I’ll avoid spoilers. The set-up is something like a Wilkie Collins narrative. After a pre-credit sequence set somewhere in the ‘Middle East’ (or ‘the Levant’ as the French used to call it) the narrative switches to Quebec where twins Simon and Jeanne are sitting before a notary who is reading their mother’s will. She was his secretary in the legal practice so the notary feels almost like family. It is a strange will which involves each of the twins being given a letter. One is required to find another sibling who is unknown to them. The other is required to find the father they had assumed was dead. The narrative then unfolds in parallel strands – one relating the events as the twins travel (separately) to their mother’s native country and the other via flashbacks revealing some of the various terrible events that the mother experienced directly.

The country and the history are never identified. The film was shot in Jordan but the nature of the events (Christian-Muslim conflict in a civil war) suggests Lebanon. The film doesn’t attempt to explain anything about the war as such. It is simply ‘shocking’. The reviewer for the World Socialist Website finds this problematic. I agree that the war does need to be contextualised in terms of anti-Imperialist struggles, but I think a filmmaker should be allowed to focus on a personal history – and in any case, the conflicts of this region are highly complex and can’t easily be explained in global political terms.

The original ‘property’ was a stage play by Wajdi Mouawad who left Lebanon as an 8 year-old in 1976, initially for France but then for Montreal. His play has been performed and very well received around the world. The four central characters are all exceptionally well-played by three Canadians and Lubna Azabal who is the Belgian-born daughter of Moroccan and Spanish parents. She’s probably best known as the ‘exile’ in the Palestinian film Paradise Now (2005). I’ve seen a complaint about her ‘Moroccan Arabic’ but that seems a pointless remark about a character in a film where her native country is not identified. (She presumably also speaks French with a Belgian not Montreal accent, but so what?) Anyway, she is sensationally good, especially since she must age 30 years. It’s a performance not to be missed – like the film.

Sight and Sound made this its ‘Film of the Month’ in July 2011. The same issue includes an interview with director Denis Villeneuve.

(Sony) Official website with Press Kit etc.

Official Canadian trailer:

One comment

  1. keith1942

    I found this an impressive film, unfortunately with a rather small audience. I also looked at the S&S interview with the director. I get the impression that the film is more naturalistic than the original play. This does seem to be a weakness. The climax of the film plays like Greek tragedy, and I think a more stylised treatment would have let this work better.

    It is still very fine. I also think that the film is actually quite political, including specifically to Lebanon’s troubled history. But it rests in the mise en scene and in the use of light and shadow.


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