Incendies and the Continued French-Canadian Art of Ruining Good Endings with Bad Epilogues

Aaron: Oooh – look at us! Two French-Canadian films in a row! We’re such North Americanphiles! (Poutineophiles!)

Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (which Villeneuve adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad) tells the very complicated story of Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal). As the movie opens, her twin children in their early 20s, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette… Alex’s future husband… you should really move to Montreal, sister) find out that before their mother moved to Canada around the time they were born, she had a son in her native Middle Eastern country. She tells them in her will to seek out their father and their brother in her native country.

Jeanne, a bit more mature and reasonable, takes on the task and goes in search of her mother’s history. When she gets to the village where Nawal was born, she finds out that momma was a political radical and has no supporters or friends there anymore. Slowly Nawal’s story is revealed to the twins and to us.

Villeneuve uses a non-traditional structure to tell the story, jumping between the present and different periods in the past throughout the film. At one point we see Jeanne remembering how her mother went into some sort of “locked-in” stroke while sitting at the pool in their modest apartment complex; at another point we see how Nawal got into trouble originally at home by getting knocked up by a political radical, forcing her to be sent from her village to the big city and university. This technique is sometimes disorienting, but is effective in slowly revealing Nawal’s history in a cloudy way that puts us in the position of her kids. It seems the whole time that we know just as much about their mother as they do.

Villeneuve also physically frames each shot very well and very interestingly. Many times we look at the ground as people walk in front of us (with hand-held cameras), putting us in the position of a conspirator with Nawal. Frequently what we are interesting in seeing is specifically just outside of the frame, so we can sense a hint of it, but never see it totally. This all leads up, rather brilliantly, to the great moment of the film when we discover the identities of the father and the brother. It’s a rather amazing reveal, I must say.

Most unfortunately, Villeneuve doesn’t leave well enough alone, and gives us a coda that spells out in dialogue what we’ve just seen visually and understand emotionally. It’s such a cumbersome and overwrought scene where a letter explaining the entire film is read, thus minimizing the total impact of what we’ve just seen. (I actually wonder if this was a struggle between Villeneuve and the producers, because there’s a wonderful lyrical shot of mountains and sky that seems to end the film just before the epilogue… which tramples on the poetry of that shot and the discovery moment.)

I liked this film, but I think some of the structure does get a bit indulgently complicated. I really hate that the country that Nawal is from is never mentioned (it’s Lebanon, by the way, but isn’t Lebanon… it’s just a mystery place where revolutionary Christians fight with Nationalist Muslims). I didn’t like that the two actors playing the twins (particularly Simon) look White and not at all like Arabs. I think the timeframe of the story is a bit too tight (Nawal was kicked out of home around 1970 and the twins were born around 1990… eh… not really believable…) Alex, you’re going to say these are very much things that I would be annoyed by… I guess I have simple tastes.

Alex: Aaron, we must be a married couple because we basically agree but I’m going to quibble with you about almost everything anyway.

The one point I agree with is your description of the visual style of Incendies, which, by the way, was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film last year. The style is mesmerizing. So tasteful and confident that it masks the absurd qualities of the narrative. (For an extreme example of what I’m talking about, see The English Patient.)

And I sort of agree with you on the epilogue, but not really. Yes, the actual words of Nawal’s letter are redundant and heavy handed. But I do think that scene has to be there. The mother has to say something to the kids because otherwise — without giving anything away — she’s led them on a quest to discover utter darkness and nihilism, a tragedy so horrible I can’t quite get my head around it. Why would a mother do that to her children? Unless she’s trying to make some larger point. We need a scene where she makes that larger point — I just wish it was a little less obvious.

Meanwhile, you’ve completely misinterpreted the movie’s experiment with point of view. We don’t learn the mother’s story along with the kids  — we learn it before they do. Her story is revealed to us at times, and in chunks, that create the most tension with the children’s story. (I like how we move back and forth between the two stories without our realizing it right away. There were moments when I had to catch up a little bit, when I said to myself, “Oh wait, we’re back in the present.” I like the modesty of that technique.)

The kids aren’t the reporter in Citizen Kane. They’re discovering a bunch of stuff we’ve already learned, and a so the suspense comes from our watching them figure out what we know to be the truth. Although the really big truth, it’s worth mentioning, is revealed to them and to us at the same moment — and from then on, we adopt the point of view of the kids. They do become the reporter.

And that was where Incendies lost me. For a long time the film made our point of view the primary one. It was an experience for the audience independent of a sympathetic protagonist. (Like Psycho.) The power came from the juxtaposition of both storylines — and that juxtaposition, the meanings it creates, is work that we do, we as audience. (Just ask Lev Kuleshov.)

But when the two stories converge, everything gets sort of trite. And the mystery structure calls attention to itself and cheapens the historical drama. Again, I don’t want to ruin anything, but this story structure asks us to accept one coincidence too many, and you, dear readers, will know what I mean when you see the movie. The plot depends on one huge coincidence that I had to talk myself into swallowing.

Also, Aaron, I didn’t think the movie skirted the fact that the mother’s home country was Lebanon. I just thought it didn’t bother to mention it. But we figured it out. (Or not, if we’re basically racists who think that any Arab or North African country is susceptible to this kind of Christian-Muslim civil war.)

One last point: The acting in this movie is wonderful all around, but Lubna Azabal, who plays the mother, is extraordinary. She’ll certainly find a place on my 2011 Ira ballot — and not for the first time: I gave Ms. Azabal points for her performance in a (very good) movie by Andre Techine called Changing Times in 2005. Just a bit of evidence of my supremely gifted eye for talent.

Aaron: OK, I don’t know if it matters, but this country that we’re in during the film is not Lebanon, but merely Lebanon-like. Sorta like how the town in Fincher’s Se7en is Los Angeles-like. Villeneuve went so far as to create a fake flag and fake town names (and a fake prison name). It’s all a bit too precious for me. Sorta like how precious the story is … and I agree with you that there are a few too many coincidences in the film. A bit overdone.

The back-and-forth might be brilliant from a writing point of view, but it’s tedious from a viewing point of view. I also experienced that “are we in the past or present” feeling, but I thought there was no need for it. The film is not about “like mother, like daughter.” I read it that it’s just showing how confusing the story is for the kids, but it’s also very confusing for viewers as well. Maybe less of that would have been more…

Also, saying that we discover things before the twins do is technically true because we understand who the brother’s father is almost right away, but that fact falls into insignificance because the brother is lost to the world (to us and to the twins) a few minutes later (until the very end of the film). I think I was speaking more emotionally, that we discover the ups and downs of the young Nawal as the daughter does. Sure, we might see scenes of Nawal the university student before Jeanne understands them, but she is learning her mother was a radical in her own way. You’re taking me too literally, Alex.

At the end of the day, there are two facts that are important in the story: who and where is the is the father and who and where is the brother (is that four things?). We learn those things at the same time the twins learn them. That the important point. We learn the significance of Rosebud at the end. (Though that doesn’t work, because we are the only ones who understand its significance… oh, shut up!)

I think the letter reading is much too heavy-handed – though maybe that’s just a dialogue and writing problem. I don’t see the film as dark and nihilistic without that epilogue. The mother is a dark and nihilistic character up to that point, anyhow. I see the story as a journey of self-discovery for the twins and without the epilogue it just ends more European, more elliptical and interesting… Do we really need a third person narrator there telling us about the power of love? Yuk. (And, by the way, the narrator might be in Nawal’s voice, but, it’s not really any Nawal that we know.)

(And yes, her acting is great.)

Oh – and one last thought. I think the whole gag with the notaries in Montreal and Lebanon was cute, but I think it works better in the context of a play (I imagine) than it does onscreen. There’s no need for comic relief like that in the film and it’s a bit stupid, honestly.

Alex: Taking you too literally? You’re the one who poked fun at yourself for picking on the movie’s unrealistic timeline and the fact that the kids don’t look Arab. You’re Mr. Freaking Literal! Yes, I did take you literally.

But a marriage means work for both parties, and compromise on both sides, and I’m big enough to say that you’ve persuaded me of your point of view on the is-it-Lebanon-or-what? issue. By creating a Lebanon-like state, but not identifying the place as a real one, the filmmakers can create their own rules, their own civil war, their own mythology of the place. Which then allows for the convolutions of the mystery structure. (I’m being vague here; it’s hard to talk about these issues without giving away the movie’s major reveal.)

And I think there’s a connection between this and your issue with the notaries. The movie is bending over backwards to make its mystery plausible  — not only the facts of what happened to the mother but the ways in which the kids find out about all of it. I suspect you’re right that these bits of the screen story that are bothering us wouldn’t bother us in the stage version. Once they adapt it for film they have a new obligation to realism and plausibility. Maybe that got them tied in narrative knots.

The more I think about Incendies, the less I like it.

Aaron: Aw, shit. I ruin everything I touch, don’t I. Sawwy, Alex.

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About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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