Wednesday 4 October 2017
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Trinity Film Blu Ray Zone B
I remember seeing a lot of enthusiasm for Incendies a few years back from Alex Kittle on Twitter (and she reviewed it here). Because of that I had it on a back burner in my mind to keep an eye out for it for a while but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I spotted a Blu Ray version of the film at a film fair for a only a few quid. So I bought it and then, on the way home, found that it was written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, who gave us such films as Sicario (reviewed here) and Arrival (reviewed here). I like that director’s way of expressing himself visually so I was really looking forward to seeing this one and, for the most part it didn’t disappoint. That being said, it does have one glaring problem, as far as I’m concerned but, for the most part, this is buried within the layers of a nice little movie.
So the things I usually associate from the work of Villeneuve, based on those two other films I’ve seen by him, are found in abundance in Incendies right from the start. That being the stunningly beautiful photography which pitches the characters against gorgeous, often naturally lit landscapes and the languid pacing which rarely rushes through the content of a shot unless a certain kind of tension is required. The film is truly wonderful to look at and, like certain moments in the previous works I mentioned, it’s often a bitter or troubled set of protagonists that are caught in the light of his cinematic spectacle.
After a brief opening showing a group of children with their heads being shaved, which will make more sense towards the closing of the story, the film starts off proper with two twins, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxime Gaudette), who are visiting the notary of the will of their recently deceased mother Nawal (played by Lubna Azabal). However, the conditions of the will means that each of them get a sealed envelope. Jeanne is asked to track down the father she didn’t know was still alive and give him one envelope. Simon is given a sealed envelope for the brother neither of them knew they had. They have to trace their mother’s steps back to a fictional area in the region of Palestine... from what I could make out... and find the story of her life - the atrocities she bore and decisions she made - in order to find the respective recipients of said letters.
Simon is angry and refuses to do this for a while but Jeanne, a 'pure mathematics' teacher, takes up the challenge first... before Simon goes to her aid and completes his part of their combined mission. The film spends most of it’s time in the past, flashbacking constantly to Nawal and setting up a character whose origins she has obviously, in future years in the story, reassigned to someone else. We see her struggle in love, childbirth and the necessity of abandoning said child, flung in protest against political strife and ultimately trying to track down her child before some even more gruelling stuff happens to her... all rendered in such a dreamy, picturesque way which, of course, contrasts to the gritty, raw atmosphere in the same way that the sad lyrics of a song may sometimes be more effective with an upbeat tempo. We see her transformation into The Woman Who Sings and just what that name means to various people caught in the plot.
And every now and then we cut back to Jeanne and, eventually, Simon as they slowly begin to unravel and learn a truth that they really don’t want to hear while, at the same time, learning an appreciation for a mother who they never knew, presumably, had gone through so much incredible pain and adverse conditions in her life. It’s a truly nice piece of work and I can only applaud both Villeneuve and the incredible actors, not to mention composer Grégoire Hetzel whose music, along with some pretty great needle drop songs, really finds the beauty in the story of Nawal and the terrible consequences of her actions.
That being said... okay, glaring problem time. The film has got a big reveal but, as it happens, this director proves once again, just as he did on Arrival, that he’s not very good at keeping the ending out of sight before he’s ready to show and tell. Incendies goes on for just under two and a half hours but, by the time I had gotten to a certain claustrophobic and nightmarish scene with a coach, about 40 minutes into the movie, I had already figured out one important aspect of the father and brother at the centre of the mystery of the movie. And, after a little more information in some of the following scenes, I’d say I pretty much pieced together the whole ending to the movie within the first hour and so... there was a little bit of me waiting around and seeing how long it would take the central characters to catch up with me, it has to be said. So, yeah, not very impressed with that element of the film but, when you have a movie with a limited amount of main characters in it, it doesn’t take long to solve the problem of identity, for sure. Which is a shame.
However, that being said, there are plenty of other rewards contained within the viewing experience, such as when Narwal kind of has a breakdown which eventually leads to her death and you realise that, at that point, not even she knew the full truth of her past. Despite the obviousness of the plot, Villeneuve manages to keep piling the tension on and, although it’s ultimately not nearly as graphic as many thrillers might be, it’s still 'felt' a little more intensely than you might feel in other films. After all, like I implied before, when you have a slow camera taking in all the details of a shot and the paths of the central characters through it, the ugliness which the camera is so intent on recording comes to the foreground and there’s no escaping the grim memoirs of a life well lived.
In all honesty, although the key to the film is quite easy to discover much earlier than you would probably want it to be become apparent, the film sucks you in with its constant flickering between the two time zones in which we see our main characters trying to discover the quickest route to the well hidden branches on their family tree... while we also see the roots of this particular part of their origins slowly beginning to grow and stretch out its dark branches. Ferociously good acting with the camera catching little, shorthand details of their characters, such as the exercise regime of one of the characters at a certain point in her life, helps convince the audience that these are real people who have lived through really bad times, above and beyond what many of us mere mortals are asked to go through during our lifetimes. Incendies is a definite must watch for any passing cinephiles and especially those who are truly enamoured of the beauty one can find in the cinematography of André Turpin and the typically gorgeous, slow burn style of Denis Villeneuve’s cinematic world. Time to track down some more of his movies, I think, before I possibly lose empathy with him on his latest project... an unnecessary sequel to the greatest movie ever made called Blade Runner 2049.