Feb 11

Incendies (2010)

Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Incendies is this year’s Canadian contender for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Best Foreign Language Film Award. Based off Wajdi Mouawad’s play, Incendies proceeds like a detective story. After having read their mother Nawal’s (Lubna Azabal) will to them, notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) hands Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) two sealed envelopes. According to their mother’s instructions, one is to be handed to their father, who they thought was dead, and the other to their brother, whose existence they knew nothing about. The film subsequently follows Jeanne, and later Simon, as they make their way through an unnamed Middle Eastern country, attempting to find their long-lost relatives. While Incendies features capable performances and beautiful cinematography, it does not offer much more.

The storytelling on display in Incendies is best characterized as lazy. The set-up is contrived. We are never really sure why the characters behave the way they do because we are never given the time to know them; as such, we don’t much care for them. The film also relies on a sequence of hard to believe coincidences to push its story forward. For example, toward the end of the film, Nawal is made to realize something about her life in a way that is utterly implausible. The ending itself is preposterous. It is meant to come as a surprise, but astute audiences will see it coming from about halfway through the film. I, for one, was desperately hoping the film would not stoop so low. After all, this is Oscar-worthy material right? Unfortunately, it would, and does. Because Incendies relies so completely on its ending, once we come to expect it, the film ceases to have anything to offer. Certain valuable themes are introduced (logic and religion), but the film is so busy setting up its end payoff that it completely forgets to build on these. If Incendies had faith in its material, it would have revealed its “surprise” at the very onset, or by the middle of the film at the latest.

One reason stories often fail is because their characters are not written in ways that inspire compelling turns of events. Roger Ebert coined the term “idiot plot” to describe “a plot that requires all the characters to be idiots. If they weren’t, they’d immediately figure out everything and the movie would be over.” In line with this, director/screenwriter Michael Haneke explains, in an interview about his dastardly wicked Funny Games (1997), that he always gives his characters dispositional substance, so they may have the best chances of overcoming obstacles:

As an author, you should always give everyone, all the characters you create, all the resources that you have. I hate writers who think they’re more intelligent than their characters. That doesn’t interest me. There are very famous writers who write in a way that I find disgusting. They think they’re God. They show their characters and they laugh at them in a cynical way. I always try to give each one of them everything that the situation allows them to have. That means giving them your intelligence, your depth of feeling, and all that.

Unfortunately, the characters of Jeanne and Simon seem to have been shortchanged here. This is a real possibility, as several events surrounding their conception and gestation may have compromised their intellectual development. Although Simon proposes that the letters be opened to put a stop to his mother’s nonsense, he quickly forgets the idea. Jean proceeds to provide a ridiculously convenient excuse for why the letters cannot be opened: posthumous wishes, and a notary’s promise to uphold them, are sacred. In this way, the film treads an uncomfortably thin line from beginning to end, threatening to fall apart at several points in between. Then again, if the characters simply went ahead and opened the letters, and were clever enough to interpret their meaning, there would be no story. That is, there would not be the story we get here. Had Villeneuve endowed his characters with wits and had them do the obvious (i.e., open the letters), it would have effectively forced the story forward into more inspired directions. Indeed, when a screenwriter supplies his characters with intellectual and emotional substance, uninteresting or nonsensical plotlines are naturally eliminated.

In a way, Incendies focuses on its least interesting characters. Jeanne and Simon are painfully ordinary, and do not really seem to care about what is happening to them. Indeed, by the end of the film, they appear to have learned nothing except what directly concerns them. This, despite the fact that they have traveled to and back from a country rich with history, history tainted with political turmoil in part brought about by their own mother. Yet, both the children and the film itself conveniently overlook this. The country and its history are just a backdrop, and we are told just enough to sustain the mystery. Regarding the children’s stagnant development throughout the film, I suppose it is hard to change one’s worldview when you are too busy running around trying to make your dead mother’s wishes come true. Notwithstanding this, the most interesting characters in Incendies remain the peripheral ones: namely, Nawal and the recipients of her letters. However, because these characters are merely tools servicing a surprise ending, we are not given the opportunity to know them or engage in their experiences beyond what is necessary for the big reveal to not fall flat. We assume that these characters have feelings and motivations, but the film is too worried about the mystery to make us care.

In The Sweet Hereafter (1997), a film I encountered recently and which is considered by some to be the best Canadian film ever produced, director Atom Egoyan dealt with tragedy in a remarkably honest and non-manipulative fashion. Incendies, on the other hand, is self-important and calculating in its approach. Bringing to mind a Greek tragedy, the film is very theatrical, which is to be expected as it is based on a play. However, Villeneuve’s approach is too melodramatic. Indeed, Incendies amounts to no more than a soap opera. While it would have made for a fine TV movie of the week, it makes for a weak Oscar contender. If you are shopping around for an Oscar-nominated film to go see this weekend, I suggest you treat yourself to Sylvain Chomet’s delightfully quirky The Illusionist instead.

Note: Haneke’s full interview is available on Kino International’s DVD release of Funny Games (1997).


  1. Kaite says:


    I completely agree. I saw the play years ago and loved it, but watched the movie recently, and was pretty disappointed. Well said!

  2. Nicolas K. says:

    Interesting. I had a sneaking suspicion that something was lost in translation from stage to screen.

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