Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” (2010)

For most of the 2000’s, director Denis Villeneuve was a semi-notable Canadian filmmaker in the midst of a self-imposed sabbatical. Despite his stunning successes in his home country’s awards circuit, he had grown disenfranchised with his profession, and focused instead on raising his children until he found material compelling enough to justify a return. The project that would ultimately herald his comeback— 2009’s POLYTECHNIQUE— was still some years away, but the material that would constitute an even-more consequential project was unexpectedly imminent. In 2004, he attended a play in Montreal by the playwright Wadji Mouawad. Titled “Scorched”, Mouawad’s play spun a harrowing tale about heritage and family set against the traumatic unrest of the Middle East. As he sat and watched, Villeneuve grew acutely aware he was witnessing, in his words, a “masterpiece” (3). He had no personal connection to the material on the basis of its geopolitical backdrop, but its undercurrents of Greek tragedy resonated strongly enough that he began to piece together a film adaptation as a potential project (4). First, he had to overcome Mouawad’s initial misgivings about such an undertaking, earning his blessing off the strength of a few early pages of screenplay (3). After nearly five years and writing and re-writing, Villeneuve and his co-writer Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne fashioned an adaptation so strong that Mouawad declined credit altogether (3). The resulting film, 2010’s INCENDIES, would build on POLYTECHNIQUE’s success and become a pivotal turning point in Villeneuve’s career, opening the door to his eventual destiny at the forefront of the American studio system.

A French word for “conflagrations” or “fires”, INCENDIES draws significant inspiration from the life of Lebanese author and activist Souha Bechara (5) in its telling of the fictional Marwan family’s turbulent past and hopeful future. Villeneuve and Beaugrand-Champagne’s screenplay employs a two-pronged structure, cutting between Canada and the fictional Middle Eastern country Daresh as effortlessly as it swaps the present timeline with a parallel plot set sometime in the 1970’s. We’re first introduced to Jeanne and Simon Marwan, a pair of adult twins living in Canada who have been tasked via their late mother’s will to travel back to Daresh and deliver handwritten letters to a father and brother they’ve never met. Jeanne, played by renowned Canadian actress Mélissa Désourmeaux-Palin, is quiet and reserved, yet probing and tenacious. Simon, by contrast, is impatient and stubborn, given the suggestion of a deep-seated rage by the casting of Maxim Gaudette, who previously appeared as The Killer in Villeneuve’s POLYTECHNIQUE. The journey to their ancestral homeland is nothing short of a total reckoning, shattering their most deeply-held beliefs about their roots with the revelation of their long-lost father and brother’s identities.

As the twins retrace their mother’s steps through a war-torn Daresh, causing agitated whispers and reopening old wounds every time they mention her name, Villeneuve toggles back and forth to the 1970’s to chronicle the hardships endured by their mother, Nawal Marwan, a young political activist and revolutionary who came to be known by her oppressors as “The Woman Who Sings”. Actress Lubna Azabar powerfully portrays Nawal over a wide range of ages (she even plays the character as seen in her 60’s, shortly before her death). Caught in the crossfire of an explosive, bloody war between the country’s Christian and Muslim sects (evocative of the Lebanese Civil War), Nawal’s personal story quickly becomes entangled with the major political movements that crash around her. Her story begins in disgrace, thrown into exile as a result of bearing a baby out of wedlock— an event in which she just barely escapes an honor killing at the hands of her own brothers. She searches the countryside for the orphanage that her son was placed into, only to find it destroyed. Her search continues for several more years, enduring the slaughter and destruction wrought by sweeping revolution to cultivate an extraordinary strength and resilience that eventually carries her across the ocean, towards the domestic tranquility of the West. Safely ensconced in Canada, she raises a family of her own while fostering a quiet career as a secretary under the employ of Notaire Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), but it’s only a matter of time until she finds that the lingering threads of her embattled history have followed her into her new life.

The performances that drive harrowing power of INCENDIES are bolstered by the sophisticated strength of Villeneuve’s technical approach. If it can be said that his films are distinguished by a certain sense of foreboding or intimidating weight, then INCENDIES arguably stands as the first major work with his solidified aesthetic at play. Working once again with his MAELSTROM cinematographer André Turpin, Villeneuve adopts a kind of formal precision to his 1.85:1 compositions, combining the smooth clarity of Zeiss master prime lenses with the organic quality of fine-grain Super 35mm film. Considered camerawork, a restrained color palette that savors contrast over saturation, and a patient pace that savors the long take all work in harmony to yield a subtle yet confident sense of directorial control— even when Villeneuve and Turpin employ the relative chaos of handheld photography, or the narrative pauses its realism to indulge in the impressionism of slow-motion. 

INCENDIES’ core technical challenge lies in differentiating and accentuating the narrative’s dual geographical and temporal structure. This challenge compounds when considering that the production’s slim budget allowed for only fifteen days on location in and around Amman, Jordan, meaning that the majority of the film had to be shot in Villeneuve’s inescapably-Western home country of Canada. Towards this end, light and color become crucial components of the film’s approach. Eschewing the conventional practice of using text to signify different time periods, Villeneuve and Turpin turn to natural light as a way to distinguish between Nawal’s journey through Daresh in the 1970’s and her daughter Jeanne’s contemporary pilgrimage— itself meant to flow effortlessly back into Nawal’s story as a way to bridge the vast time gap and evoke a shared experience. Hard sunlight casts stark shadows over modern-day sequences, while a diffuse, dusky glow bathes the 70’s timeline. Similarly, color works to quickly orient the audience in geographical space, all while predicting the particular aesthetic of several Villeneuve films to come. Cold earth tones reminiscent of his later aesthetic with PRISONERS (2013) place the onscreen action in Canada, while the burned-out desert palette that characterizes SICARIO (2015) finds its origins in INCENDIES’ fictional Daresh. The additional touch of red block text intertitles also helps to place the viewer in time and space, acting more like chapter headings than lower-third indicators. Composer Grégoire Hetzel provides a spare orchestral score punctuated with female vocals, but the core of INCENDIES’ musical identity belongs to Radiohead. Two needledrops in particular — “Like Spinning Plates” and “You and Whose Army” become a recurring motif throughout the film, with the latter track having been a foundational aspect of Villeneuve’s vision since inception. The piece provides a haunting, downtempo character that complements the dark mystery at the heart of the proceedings.

In adapting Mouawad’s source play for the screen, Villeneuve’s attraction to the material becomes readily apparent. He employs his pet themes to mold the story in his own image, which changes Mouawad’s source material rather drastically so that Villeneuve can bring a sense of lived-in authenticity to a backdrop he isn’t necessarily familiar with. The use of Girard’s Notaire Jean Lebel character becomes crucial in this regard, as Villeneuve’s own father worked as a notary. As such, Villeneuve’s beginning of the story in Lebel’s office (meticulously modeled after the director’s father’s actual office (2)) establishes a necessary baseline of authenticity that grounds the rest of the action. Said action distinguishes itself as a story about pain as inheritance, and the dark secrets hidden in lineage, with its matriarchal perspective harmonizing rather effortlessly with the many other female protagonists that populate his filmography. Far more than the “strong women” stock types that other directors prescribe masculine characteristics to, Villeneuve roots his protagonists’ strength in their fundamental femininity. From POLYTECHNIQUE to later works like SICARIO and ARRIVAL, these women assert themselves with formidable, STEM-styled intelligence that more than makes up for any perceived physical vulnerability. This is certainly true of Jeanne Marwal, who is seen early on in INCENDIES inhabiting the world of academia before setting off alone to Daresh— not to conquer, but to listen; to gather the pieces of her mother’s puzzle, in the hopes that bringing her tragic past to light will serve as some kind of posthumous redemption. 

The flashback sequences depicting her mother, Nawal, highlight the character’s political activism as well as a courage and resilience that only motherhood can provide. Indeed, after flirting with the theme in MAELSTROM, Villeneuve’s signature artistic interest in motherhood as an active dramatic concept emerges in full bloom with INCENDIES. If traditional patriarchal lineage can be said to imbue subsequent generations with a sociopolitical identity — class, status, property, the perpetuation of old rivalries — then matriarchal lineage, at least as defined by Villeneuve’s worldview, passes down its reverberations: resilience, foresight, the need for protection, the burial of secrets… and the laying of contingencies for their eventual unearthing. The revelation of dark family secrets is usually done reluctantly and only when absolutely necessary, to spare one’s children of needless pain and burden. The drawn-out unveiling of Nawal Marwan’s harrowing past acts, conversely, as catharsis— “the truth shall set you free”. While her decades-long search for her son ends while she’s still alive to know his identity, the fulfillment of her character’s arc must happen posthumously. Only by passing on the truth to her twin children via a mission assigned from beyond the grave can she finally absolve herself of the shame that prevented her from doing so in life. Only then will she allow herself to rest; to be buried in a proper grave that commemorates the tremendous sacrifices she made to give her children a better life in the west. 

From the relatively-grounded backdrops of INCENDIES and PRISONERS to BLADE RUNNER 2049’s fictional futurescape, Villeneuve underscores the brutality of these worlds (real and fictional alike) by anchoring our experience of them within the feminine perspective. Hard, oppressive environments are a signature of Villeneuve’s filmography— he’s becoming something of a master in the crafting of realistic dystopias, imbuing otherwise-ordinary landscapes with an aura of ominousness or foreboding. However, to hear the director talk in interviews or audio commentaries, these cold, inhospitable conditions don’t necessarily correlate with his own worldview; indeed, one gets the impression that he considers himself an artist with a deep sensitivity to the fragile beauty of life. By generating narrative sympathy for characters whose physicality or vulnerability could be considered more “delicate” — at least as it relates to conventional, deeply-entrenched attitudes of masculinity as a celebration of brute strength and stoicism — Villeneuve can better highlight the virtues of feminine fortitude. With its depiction of a fictional country torn asunder by political and religious conflict, INCENDIES crystallizes Villeneuve’s fascination with the ways in which women maneuver brutal, barbaric worlds built without regard for them.

Throughout INCENDIES, Villeneuve displays ample evidence of his maturing voice, finding confidence and authority in the dramatic power of the material instead of stylistic flourishes or techniques. Its reception would build on the previous success he encountered on the awards circuit, premiering at Venice and Toronto before making a splash with American audiences at Sundance and Telluride. Critics generally praised the film, with a few noting their distaste for the film’s length and melodramatic touches (both aspects, ironically, would go on to become a core part of Villeneuve’s artistic approach)(6). These positive notices would drive a modest box office run, generating $16 million against a $6 million budget— maybe not very impressive by Variety’s standards, but enough to deliver Villeneuve a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Oscars and an opportunity to cross over into the American studio system. Indeed, INCENDIES would be the last work Villeneuve completed while toiling under the relative obscurity of the Canadian film industry before his invasion of Hollywood, and wins for Best Motion Picture and Best Director at the Canadian Genie Awards provided a suitably prestigious send off. A decade on since its release, it has become quite clear that INCENDIES completes the foundation laid by MAELSTROM and POLYTECHNIQUE, becoming the cornerstone upon which Villeneuve could build the monolithic works that would deliver him to the forefront of mainstream studio filmmaking.

INCENDIES is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Credits:

Produced by: Luc Déry, Kim McCraw

Written by: Denis Villeneuve & 

Director of Photography:

Production Designer: André-Line Beauparlant

Edited by: Monique Dartonne

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Director’s Commentary
  3. Nestruck, J. Kelly (18 January 2011). “Will Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Incendies’ light a fire under Oscar? – The Globe and Mail”. The Globe and Mail. Toronto. Archived from the original on 2 April 2012. Retrieved 1 September 2017.
  4. Brooks, Brian (15 February 2011). “OSCARS 2011: ‘Incendies’ Director Denis Villeneuve”. IndieWire. Archivedfrom the original on 18 August 2016. Retrieved 6 August 2016.
  5. Snaije, Olivia (2 February 2011). “Seeing yourself re-made as fiction”. The Daily Star. Archived from the original on 16 September 2013. Retrieved 6 August 2016.
  6. “Incendies (2011)”. Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Archived from the original on 10 December 2010. Retrieved 5 January 2020.