When twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan hear the last will of their mother, they discover that they have a lost brother in the Middle East. They track the traces of their mother’s life to find the brother and fulfill her last will, but what they discover shocks them all.
Incendies (2010) was the stepping stone film that allowed director Denis Villeneuve to break into Hollywood and gather critical acclaim with Prisoners (2013), while coming from the Quebecois film scene. Incendies itself, a film in French language, is a highly rated and awarded film that was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars in 2010.
At the start, a tense scene sets the tone, and gives a prediction for the direction of the story: child soldier being shaved, and one of them gives a lingering look at the camera. During the next half hour we learn who this boy is. Incendies starts out very strong, where the key characters are quickly established in a few scenes that speak a thousand words. Jeanne and Simon Marwan are present to hear the will of their mother, and their reactions to the will and to each other immediately shows all the tensions between them and with their mother’s mysterious past. It is economic storytelling with lots of emotional undertones.
In a nice stepwise manner we learn more and more about the central drama. Occasional flashbacks of harrowing scenes add more layers to the story. I’d rather not say too much about it, because a descent into complexity is one of the main themes of the movie, and it is for the audience to experience this while watching it. In one telling scene, this is even made clear to us by a mathematics professor who explains to Jeanne Marwan about entering a world without clear answers and of frustrating complexity. Director Denis Villeneuve repeats this strategy of the explaining professor in Enemy (2013) and the theme of dealing with chaos and complexity seems to touch every one of his movies.
Jeanne Marwan and her mother follow parallel paths, but at different moments in time. They both go south, searching for lost family. The mother, her son, and Jeanne, her mother. It is a descend into a complex land of grief, where individual relationships are torn apart in a whirlpool of religious warfare and honor. Occasionally, Incendies is brutal and shocking. Excellent use of music and sounds really guides us emotionally through the story, in a rhythm of tension and moments of relaxation.
Death is never the end of the story; it always leaves tracks, says one of the characters. The twins react differently to it. Jeanne wants to search for the hard truths, Simon wants to turn his back and wants everything to be normal and closed. But emotions always take their own time, and decisions made in times of war sometimes take a lifetime to unfold. The never-ending cycle of war continues in the time of Jeanne and Simon, but we see that the new cycle is built upon the events of the earlier one, and is part of the unfolding of decisions made at that time. This is a very depressive vision that Villeneuve shows us, but, as some of his characters say, it is like mathematics. Like a clockwork made of decisions and relationships, that takes decades to count down.
But this is all in the background, and the film ends with a very emotional punch that hits you square in the stomach, multiple times, in an extended sequence of scenes that leaves you silent and cramped. It’s a very powerful film that will stay with me for a long time. Overdramatic, perhaps, but the end isn’t all gloom and carries within it a small measure of forgiveness, of release from the cycle of hate.