Blazing a trail through Lebanon and a family’s past, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies tiptoes through a chain of unstoppable fires to a reconciliatory future.
The Ring Of Fire by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad, Denis Villeneuve’s film version of Incendies is most certainly cinematic. And from its glossy pop promo Radiohead-scored opening sequence, almost self-consciously so. In fact, its narrative, like a Greek myth with its endless stream of revelations, seems more fitting to the mechanical screen than the very human stage. Like Villeneuve’s previous films Maelstrom and Polytechnique, Incendies is an emotional storm in unfamiliar territory. Here it’s a journey fuelled by promises that threatens to undo the comfortable existence of twins Jeanne and Simon sparked in them by their mother’s will. Either they pass on their mother’s letters to the father and brother they never knew they had or break her promise and bury her in unhallowed ground face down from the sun. No choice really at all.
Incendies is like a mathematical equation, step on step on step. A tortuous journey for mathematician Jeanne as she attempts to find the answers to the insoluble problems bequeathed by her mother. Tracing her mother’s footsteps in a Middle Eastern state that might as well be the Lebanon, her journey paralleled by flashbacks of Narwal Marwan’s life – the murder of her refugee lover Wahib, her pregnancy and disgrace, Jeanne tries to learn, relive and write her mother’s story. For the most part, Narwal’s narrative bears the most weight, and her survival of a brutal bus attack by Christian militia, bereft and burnt out, is simply heartrending. Her absent stare, broken by the horror, recalls her poolside accident, a premonition of the final reel tragedy awaiting us.
Flitting between Muslim and Christian, Narwal plays both sides to survive until, unable to find her son, she engages in the militia and is imprisoned in Kfar Ryat for assassinating the head of the Christian right wing militia. Shunned by her family but revered by prison staff, number 72 La Femme Qui Chante is indomitable, singing defiantly to herself as inmates scream in tortured pain. That Villeneuve decides not to show Narwal’s rape by Abou Tarek is strange, a noticeable absence after the horrific drama of the bus attack. Perhaps it’s a taboo too far for this gynocentric drama or an echo of Narwal’s own shocked absences. Or maybe it’s mathematical – the ellided centre of a vortex Villeneuve simply can’t show, the paradox at the centre of a lopsided equation that one plus one can equal one.
That the midwife marks her baby’s foot three times might set Oedipal hearts racing, and its oh so much worse than that. But here the dramatic sheen of the prologue pays its dues – its chasm, its army boots, its barefoot, hair-shorn, heel-pricked boy and his confrontational stare revisiting with full force. A modern-day tragic myth, there’s also something of the storytelling process about Incendies, its narrative transporting unsuspecting and agog readers, in the shape of Jeanne and Simon, to a foreign land. And while the swimming pool sequences provide a metaphoric, amniotic headspace connecting the breathless, mind-racing twins as they realise they and not their brother are the fruits of rape, it’s also a figurative space for the reader/viewer, free from action, in which to finally contemplate and feel.
Lubna Azabal is enchanting as Narwal, and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin is equally engaging as her scratched and wide-eyed daughter. And as the twins’ identity shatters into pieces, transformed into Sarwan and Jihan, the unwanted byproducts of rape, their mother’s coldness is finally explained, understood and forgiven – the maternal absences her utmost to break the chain of hate. This climax of reconciliation is crowned with Narwal’s letters from beyond the grave – a wonderful dialectic of a mother’s unconditional love and her bitter victim’s hate. It’s a dualism that also mirrors her love for the twins as well as the émigré’s bittersweet yearning for the motherland.
An emotional tour de force, Incendies is uncompromising storytelling. Political but symbolically unidentified and unpartisan, its story is a merciless string of broken promises and unwanted revelations, each another turn of the screw. One fire sparks another, like the reprisals between nationalists, Christian militia and refugees. But here death does leave traces, disclosing a buried history of untold stories. It’s violent, darkly funny and emotionally enriching. But above all Incendies is captivating and clever storytelling. As taut as a sniper’s crosshair, it grabs hold and won’t let go.
Incendies is released in the UK on 24th June 2011