Director: Denis Villenueve
Writers: Denis Villenueve, Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne, Wajdi Mouawad
Cinematographer: André Turpin
Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard
Studio/Running Time: Sony Pictures Classics, 130 min.
One of the questions at the heart of Incendies is whether the search is as important as what’s found at the end. The taut drama follows a pair of twins trying to fulfill a request from their mother’s will: to find their lost brother and unknown father and hand them a pair of mysterious letters. It soon turns out that the pair knew little of their mother’s life, so their exploration is one of their own family history.
Incendies cleverly cross-cuts the siblings’ search with their mother’s life, allowing the audience to learn with them each twist and turn of who she was. Stylistically the film is mesmerizing, and director Denis Villenueve fills every frame with the maximum level of suspense. On the level of storytelling the movie’s a true tour de force, every bit as thrilling as a Bourne movie.
The film’s revelations, on the other hand, are frankly ridiculous. They feel cribbed straight from Victorian sensation novels, and while memorable, it’s not the good kind of memorable. The end of the movie features an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist, one that certainly makes sense but still feels a bit ridiculous. It’s not a particularly satisfying way for two hours of excellent build-up to end.
There are also some strange points that lessen Incendies’ impact. One is removing much of the picture from a real location, instead placing things in an unnamed Arab country. This has an alienating effect that also blunts the drama of its events, since they feel much more fictional than they would if a real location and its conflicts were invoked. There’s also the fact that, while we certainly watch this woman make difficult decisions, she manages to remain oddly distant. Her choices frequently seem random and she lacks any real psychology—her children learn how she acted but not why and how she felt about what she did.
The resulting movie feels a bit hollow with little to say about its frequently horrific and melodramatic events. But that doesn’t make the journey any less entertaining, such that most of the Incendies is still a captivating spectacle. As a film of ideas, it’s disappointing, but as a two-hour ride it’s definitely worth your time.