The films of Denis Villeneuve seem to universally focus on forms of trauma its impact on those surrounding it. Incendies is a work of his that predates any others I’ve seen, and is simultaneously his most ambitious in scope and emotion.
Incendies opens on a pair of twins listening in on their late (and, seemingly, emotionally absent) mother’s will, only to find that she has left instructions to find their father (whom they never knew) and their brother (whom they never knew existed) before she is given a proper burial. The twins are apprehensive, particularly the brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette) who initially refuses to investigate. The pair, living in Canada, end up in an unidentified middle Eastern country, learning horrific things about their mother’s past. As we watch this, we are consistently taken to flashback scenes of their mothers (Lubna Azabal) past, which, without trying to give any spoilers, is one of civil unrest and sexual violence.
The idea of trauma explored in Incendies is twofold. On one hand we have the trauma of the mother Nawal as she navigates her environment, on the other we have the trauma experienced by the twins in learning new, confronting details about their mothers life they could never have suspected during her life (“death is only the beginning” says Jean Lebel, the family’s notary and coworker of Nawal). These traumas unfold simultaneously, and through this we explore a startling comparison of direct and indirect trauma, of violence and violent thoughts, of suffering and suffering by proxy. Though the journey of the twins is never fraught with any direct danger, Villeneuve never lets us see their journey as any less profound than that of their mothers.
The film is also Villeneuve’s most family oriented work. Rather than just explore the banal tested ropes of standard stifling family interactions, Villeneuve is far more interested in where familial love begins and ends and how we react when this is pushed to the limit. For all the brilliant, tense depictions of violence that occurs in the story of the past, Incendies’ most compelling moments are quiet moments of family, where we see the twins speaking of their mother, Nawal desperately crying out for her baby, an awful, shocking scene early in the movie which I will not spoil featuring Nawal and her grandmother.
The idea of family, through Villeneuve’s lens, is so powerful it is able to transcend the proxy through which the twins learn of their mother’s suffering. It is the idea of family that gives the information they learn such gravity, and make the films final act so compelling. Without Villeneuve’s aggressive yet faithful depiction of family, the emotional centre of the film would fall apart and it would be nothing other than impressive.
Yet impressive it most definitely is. Villeneuve has a technical mastery and a cinematic subtlety rarely rivalled in today’s cinema. He is a master of showing the bare minimum needed to tell a story, giving the audience members respect that, if you pay close attention, you can figure out the movies truths moments before you feel like you’re supposed to. Villeneuve is capable of making the viewer feel like a genius because he refuses to treat them like an idiot.
Within his impressive canon, Incendies, I believe, holds its own place. In his string of highly critically successful films of the 2010s, perhaps none is imbued with as much compassion (even Arrival, which I didn’t enjoy so much, does not have the heart to match). It is not as visceral an experience as 2013’s Prisoners, as psychologically challenging as Enemies, or as hopelessly, beautifully dark as 2015’s Sicario, yet it finds its place in his oeuvre naturally. It is the mother figure for those films.
NB: I hope me saying this film has heart and compassion doesn’t lure you into believing it to be a happy movie. It most definitely isn’t. But the resonant emotion is one of hope, one of reconciliation, one of an overpowering love, that isn’t present elsewhere in his recent work.