'Incendies': Tragedy of the Wrong Kind
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Incendies" begins with a sequence of a group of preteen Arab boys in a bombed-out looking building getting severe crewcuts as Radiohead's "You And Whose Army?" plays on the soundtrack. The camera dollies in on one particularly beautiful kid with big brown eyes who glares into the lens as Thom Yorke whinges "come on if you think you can take us." "That's right," the kid seems to be saying to us. "I'm gonna get you back for this, just you wait. When I grow up I'm gonna fly a plane into a building, or something!"
I'm sorry, was that tasteless? What can I tell you, I was just responding to the way this film was speaking to me. And, not to be all spoilerish or anything, but it just so happens that my response was not completely off the mark; the young boy in he scene does grow up to do some pretty awful things. "Incendies" is a movie that purports to tell us how "we" make terrorists and torturers, and the suffering we may have to go through in order to break cycles of anger and hatred and recrimination in order to live in peace and learn to love each other. Now this is all very laudable (most would say), but for "Incendies" the problems lie less with what it's trying to talk about than the way it talks about it. Adapted from a play by Lebanon-born Canadian theater figure Wajdi Mouawad by screenwriter/director Denis Villeneuve, "Incendies" is about as meretriciously overdetermined as art cinema, or any kind of cinema for that matter, gets.
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After its Middle East prologue the film's action shifts to Montreal (which Villeneuve shoots to look like a setting out of Orson Welles' version of Kafka's "The Trial") where adult twins Jeanne and Simon (Melissa Desormeaux Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) are presented with an odd puzzle by their late mother's lawyer: instructions to seek out a brother they never knew they had and a father they thought was dead and present those individuals with one letter each from the dead mother, after which they will be presented with their own letter from mom, and receive permission to give her a proper burial. So begins the process of uncovering secrets that were buried in another world years ago.
"Incendies" tries to mask the fact that its setup comes straight out of Agatha Christie at her diciest by partaking in other, more contemporary commonplaces of ostensibly meaning-laden dramaturgy -- of course Jeanne is a brilliant young mathematician! -- and, once it gets to the Middle East, laying on the trappings of tragedy, staging conscientious shots of bombed-out buildings with an operatic soprano mourning on the soundtrack, and having characters of particular factions make pronouncements such as "Ideas only survive if we're there to defend them!" and so on.
Although the crucibles of domestic violence and particularly of civil war depicted in the flashback scenes strongly suggest the real events that took place in Lebanon from the mid-'70s into 1990, the film doesn't name an actual country, which might have been an attempt to reserve its status as a work of imagination but in fact plays more like an equivocation. Maybe one reason bromides about breaking cycles of anger and violence don't have much of an effect is because they don't acknowledge the actual politics that is behind ... oh, forget it. As the picture goes on, telling the tale of Jeanne and Simon's mother and the trauma the twins undergo uncovering it, twist builds upon twist, "building" to a climactic revelation this viewer saw coming about a half hour prior to its revelation and then raising the bet one more time in a gambit that will have cynics and/or realists rolling their eyes while the more credulous gasp "What incredible and appalling irony that teaches us about both the depths and heights of human nature!"
As I said up front: Overdetermined and meretricious. But very professionally done. The acting is first-rate throughout, and Villeneuve's narrative style (he frequently favors dialogue scenes in long takes shot from a fair distance) suggests a less-cold-blooded Michael Haneke, which begs the question of what good is a less-cold-blooded Michael Haneke, but again, that's a little off-topic here. That this sort of thing ends up getting nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Awards says quite a few unflattering things about both the academy and the current state of foreign films, maybe.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.