“There are truths that can only be revealed on condition of having been discovered.”– Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies (2003)
Incendies has an ominous and deeply disturbing opener: a slow fade in from black onto an arid mountain landscape that pulls back through a window frame and pans slowly left to reveal a group of young boys whose heads are being shaved by one man while others stand around holding rifles as the opening drone of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army” builds slowly in the background. The scene is all the more worrisome in that our worst fears about the fate of these boys are left hanging in suspense over the next two hours of the film. So the cut that finally ends the scene, while disorienting, also promises relief on a number of levels: towering rows of file drawers replace the burnt shell of a rural building and the unmistakable profile of Québécois film stalwart Rémy Girard replaces the frightened, defiant, and unknown face of a very unhappy boy. Local drama replaces distant war atrocities, and those who know Girard from countless roles in countless Canadian films can finally get their bearings. (American viewers will likely recall his memorable roles in Denys Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire (1986) and The Barbarian Invasions, the last Canadian film to be nominated for an Oscar.) Director and screenwriter Denis Villeneuve knows exactly what he’s doing with this contrast, for the theme of the film, as well as its considerable power, derives from the unexpected changes it rings from the familiar contrast between the chaotic war-torn homeland and the cold space of exile.
That we are meant not only to contrast but also to connect these two spaces is powerfully articulated not only by the bridging strains of Radiohead, which continue as the camera slowly zooms in on Girard’s anguished features, but by the parallel panning movements, which urge us to associate these and several later moments in the film in a formal pattern that echoes and deepens the more linear unfolding of the film’s tightly woven plot. These patterns evoke the traces of intricate networks of meaning that somehow persist within the shattered lives visualized for us in the repeated images of burned-out shells of vehicles and buildings. The untranslatable title of Incendies means something like “scorched”; more literally, it refers to “places where a fire has occurred,” and its scope reaches beyond the center of trauma in the Middle East and into the apparently normal lives of its characters in Montreal, where the film begins and ends. The film has been freely adapted by Villeneuve from the 2003 drama by Lebanese-born Québécois playwright Wajdi Mouawad. Incendies tells the story of twenty-something twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan (played by Québécois veterans Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), who are tasked with uncovering the mysterious past of their mother by her final testament, read to them in the opening scene by notary Jean Lebel (Girard). Their search to deliver letters to a heretofore unknown father and brother takes them to an unnamed country loosely but unmistakably based on Mouawad’s native Lebanon (his family left at the start of the civil war, when he was seven) and passes in review the tragic history of the war while also unraveling a family drama of tragic dimensions (spoiler alert: key plot details will be revealed and discussed below).
Mouawad’s epic play used densely poetic language and highly abstract staging to create a mythic tale of the effect of war on individual lives. Mouawad uses three different actors to play the mother Nawal Marwan at age 14, when she bears and must give up the child of her lost lover; middle-age, when she assassinates the head of the Christian militias, is imprisoned and tortured, and bears twins as the result of repeated rapes by her torturer; and 60, when she fortuitously identifies her long-lost son while also recognizing him as her torturer and the father of her twins, and falls silent until her death soon thereafter. The dialogue and staging fluidly intermix the different ages and different sets of characters, enacting a play of memory rather than a straightforward reportage of war atrocities. A playwright steeped in Greek tragedy (he directed Oedipus Rex for the stage in 1998, and his cycle of three Sophoclean tragedies, Les Femmes, premiered at Avignon this summer), Mouawad nevertheless injects that tradition with a willfully contemporary context — his sniper Nihad sings ’80s pop songs while dreaming of being interviewed on television — without compromising the emotional impact of tragedy’s irresolvable dilemmas. The series of revelations that structure both play and film resemble the plot twists that litter contemporary actioners and thrillers; however, their function is quite different. What the local notary Maître Maddad (Allen Altman) says about the sequence of events in the civil war in Villeneuve’s film also holds true for the structure of classical tragedy, “This period saw a succession of reprisals embedded in one another with an implacable logic, like mathematical calculations.” The plot of Oedipus, which Incendies closely resembles, moves like perfect clockwork, each action winding it up more tightly until the inevitable explosion of the hapless protagonist’s discovery of his true identity. And both Mouawad and Villeneuve are especially compelled by the aftermath of the discovery, what Mouawad in the play calls “history in tatters” and what Aristotle termed “pity and fear.” The experience of tragedy puts one in a unique and uniquely receptive emotional place, and the function of that process is to question and disrupt seemingly eternal verities. The devastating denouement of play and film is in this sense didactic, its plot revelations a means to an end: how do you sever the thread of war and reprisals that resembles the mechanism of tragedy but is bereft of the consolation of its cathartic resolution? And in this sense, both versions embrace the necessity of the process of revelation as asserted by Nawal’s words in her letter to the twins in Mouawad’s play: “There are truths that can only be revealed on condition of having been discovered.”
While it holds true to this fundamental tenet, Villeneuve’s screenplay compresses and refines the play, trimming character, backstory, and exposition in favor of a vertiginous concentration on the embedded series of revelations and its devastating effect on Nawal and her three children. This same compression also opens up the film to charges of sensationalism and empty manipulation. Yes, the entire film has been constructed to prepare us for the final shock, but, no, it’s not just a rollercoaster ride. What’s fascinating about Incendies is the way it plays with our expectations of horror, manipulating us apparently shamelessly with the extraordinary suffering of the mother and the endlessly unpeeling string of revelations, each one worse than the last, only to pull the rug out from under us at the end when the father/son/rapist opens the two letters addressed to him that we had been warned about at the start of the film, but from then on in had been distracted from. This is because the message of the letters runs counter to our movie narrative instincts: rather than being engulfed in the punishing waves of emotional payoff that we have so deeply invested ourselves in during the film’s long buildup, the mother has somehow transcended, refusing to be sucked into the emotional vortex. So the very melodrama that has carried us through the film is channeled into something totally different, miming for us the political argument that the only possible solution to the mathematical cycle of violence (the “impossible” problems of which mathematician Jeanne is early on, in Montreal, introduced as expert) is to refuse its arithmetic. Where Mouawad clothes the events of his native country throughout in the garb of classical tragedy, Villeneuve, both through his own instincts as a director and through the force of movie genre tropes, must wrest the consoling structure of tragedy out of the very different mechanics of melodrama.
The way that Villeneuve chooses to map this shift is by posing and then resolving the puzzle in Montreal rather than the Middle East. This is, of course, a problematic assumption — that the Middle East cannot resolve its problems on its own, that the warlord caught in the middle of this violence remains there to this day, that the refugee city is still a refugee city — but it is also an accurate recognition of how the world has changed since the decade of the 1970s in which the mother and her country were trapped; for better or worse, Villeneuve seems to be arguing, problems and solutions have been globalized. So perhaps the most significant change he made to the play was to amplify and elaborate the connections between Quebec and “Lebanon” (as I will refer to the unidentified Middle Eastern setting from here on in).1 In the play, Montreal is nothing more than the home of Jeanne, Simon, and the notary, a place of exile with no substantive relationship with the mother’s (and the playwright’s) birthplace. Rather than being given a new identity and encountered happenstance at the local pool, as he is in the film, Nihad in the play is identified by his mother on trial for his crimes, presumably in the land where he committed them. Mouawad uses the complex temporal layering of his play to juxtapose the different characters; Villeneuve’s cinematic equivalent of sound bridges and often ambiguous match cuts introduces a strong juxtaposition of place to that thematic layering. For example, just after the midpoint of the film, at the key moment when we first see Nawal (Belgian-born Moroccan-Spanish actor Lubna Azabal) “become” for us “The Woman Who Sings,” brokenly picking her way in through Marcel Khalifé’s plaintive “Nami Nami” to a background of a woman screaming in pain, Villeneuve segues into the opening synthesizer whorls of Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates.” These pulsing sounds bridge from Nawal’s prison cell to a half-empty swimming pool, followed by a montage of dreary rainy and anonymous Montreal settings that eventually resolves into a slow pan left from an open window to Simon standing alone in his apartment. In addition to signaling the end of Simon’s resistance to learning about his past — up to this point, the cuts across time had been reserved for Jean Lebel and Jeanne — the sequence equally hearkens back to the opening Radiohead-tracked cut between the boy being shaved and the notary with his files. Strangely enough, tragedy doesn’t require an awful lot of exposition — it’s all too familiar and inevitable — and Villeneuve perhaps doesn’t even need this elegant hint that Simon is beginning, like the notary, to be invested in Nawal’s past, or that he shares something very profound with the boy (his half-brother and father, in fact) whose glower at the camera, we realize, has been matched by Simon’s own profane refusal to look back.
Like a number of Québécois filmmakers of recent decades — Jean-Claude Lauzon, Robert Lepage, Léa Pool, André Turpin, and Jean-Marc Vallée, in particular — Villeneuve has tended to compose his films out of dense associational patterns of images and strategic, often jarring musical choices. What sets Incendies apart from most of these films (and from Villeneuve’s first two features) is the subordination of these imagistic and aural patterns to a riveting and intricately constructed plot. You can read the film without them, but the less you notice them the more overtly melodramatic and manipulative it feels. Like the rock music in Lauzon’s Léolo (1992) or Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), the two Radiohead songs mark a particular time and a particular way of experiencing the world that transcends local identity, for better or for worse. This is clearest with the jarring cut from Nawal sitting stunned besides the burned-out shell of a bus whose passengers (except for her) have just been massacred, to Jeanne riding in a bus on the same road, in the same posture and framing as we had previously seen Nawal. The only difference: she’s sporting a white set of iPod earbuds, through which are pouring, according to the now suitably grainy soundtrack, the familiar strains of “You and Whose Army.” It’s a multilayered moment. We are shown both the proximity and the distance between Nawal and Jeanne, while again being sent back to that opening scene in the orphanage (of which we have also previously seen Nawal wandering through the burned-out shell in search of her lost son), knowing that this is somehow an originary moment of the mystery. But we are also led to reflect on the director’s, and our, own position vis-à-vis these events. Villeneuve has spoken in interviews about how the song was “written into the screenplay from day one” (http://anthemmagazine.com/story/Sundance-Exclusive%3A-Denis-Villeneuve%27s-%22Incendies%22). In reprising it as Jeanne’s soundtrack for her journey, he is also in a sense identifying it as molding his own perspective on these events (“emotions, melancholy, and a kind of operatic feeling”) and this distant country of which he forthrightly confesses that he knows very little.
This perspective is also a highly self-conscious one, for Villeneuve is fully aware of the muted distance that is the counterpart to the emotionality of “You and Whose Army,” and how this paradoxical combination is typical of contemporary attitudes toward the outside world. Jeanne’s ear buds mark her as an outsider, just as the mediated emotions she hears through them keep her at arm’s length from the more direct emotions that have driven her mother Nawal since she fell in love with a refugee at the age of 14 (at least in the play — the film does not specify her age, only her youth). In a similar scene, following the interview with a former guard in which she learns that her mother was tortured and raped in prison, Jeanne calls Simon from her cell phone (later, she will let him listen to the sounds of their mother’s village, and he will phone her from just outside the refugee camp). Villeneuve and Turpin frame her, phone in hand, in extreme long shot, her rented car and the neatly paved and terraced road in the bottom half, the landscape emptying out behind and below her. The jarring concatenations of globalization — the cell phone network that permits her to call her brother in Montreal from the middle of a Middle Eastern desert — mirror the jarring reach of personal history and personal trauma.2 Consequently, Villeneuve has also heightened or altered other aspects of the play to highlight a sense of global interconnection. Jeanne’s first (if abortive) contact is a mathematician at the university at “Daresh” where Nawal had been, an old friend of her mentor in Montreal. Lebel orchestrates the detective work that leads to discovering the identity of the twin’s brother by contacting a fellow notary in “Daresh”; together, they sing the praises of the notary’s function in keeping track of the records of the world. Chamseddine, the leader of the resistance in Deressa, is able to use his contacts in Montreal to settle Nawal and her children there with a steady job, and later to do the same for Nihad. Even the prominently displayed Québécois accents of Jeanne and Simon contrast with the more “proper” French spoken by many of the inhabitants of the country they are visiting.
At the same time as Villeneuve sustains an argument regarding the interconnection of contemporary life, he strongly delineates the play’s more diffuse sense of division. The two moments of large-scale destruction in the play — the burned bus and the massacre in the refugee camps — closely reproduce formative moments in the civil war in Lebanon, although their meaning is not limited to this reflection.3 But Villeneuve makes explicit at numerous moments the Christian/Muslim divide that Mouawad had left implicit. In the central bus scene, for example, Nawal is saved by revealing herself to be Christian, showing the cross that she would later leave to her daughter. The reason seems pretty clear: Villeneuve has his sights set not only on the Middle East conflict in particular, but on the broader contemporary conflict between Christian and Muslim, and the way those terms mask and perpetuate the type of violence he is showing in the film. As elsewhere, he establishes the division in visual and spatial terms, twice setting key crossing scenes at a bridge that, within the film’s economy at least, stands at the border between north and south, Christian and Muslim. Alongside the Christian/Muslim division is a subtler but more pervasive contrast between Montreal and Nawal’s native country, between the West and the Middle East, and between the global north and the global south. This division, too, is established visually, with innumerable contrasts between the dark, depressed, wintery, and alienated cityscape of Montreal and the open, panoramic landscape of Nawal’s home, full of the sound of birds singing, insects chirping, and trees waving in the breeze.
Villeneuve is at pains to complicate these divisions as he establishes them. Nawal is defined by her rejection of a tribal identity with either Christian or Muslim; the most beautiful natural scenery in the film is also the setting for the murder of her lover; her country is dessicated and its buildings house prisons. But they are also often stunningly composed, just as Turpin had captured the alien beauty of the Utah desert in Villeneuve’s debut feature, Un 32 août sur terre (1998). And while Montreal is filmed primarily as a site of depressed alienation, the outer reflection of Nawal’s, Simon’s, and, later, Nihad’s, misery, Villeneuve also makes it the site of Nawal’s profound realization of forgiveness. The final, understated scene shows Nihad standing before Nawal’s grave in the Mont-Royal Cemetery, surrounded by greenery and awash in the sounds of nature we had previously heard only in “Lebanon.” And there is also the swimming pool. Like Turpin’s debut feature, Un crabe dans la tête (2001), Villeneuve’s prior “break-out film” Maëlstrom (2000) was saturated in water imagery. The pool scenes are the closest in Incendies to the free-floating metaphors of those earlier films, especially in the scene following the children’s discovery that their father was the torturer Abou Tarek (Abdelghafour Elaaziz), where the two of them plunge underwater in a scene that could just as well be occurring in the past in Montreal as in the present (in a Beirut hotel basement?). The remainder of the scenes are resolutely set (and filmed) in a single pool in Montreal, and revolve around Nawal’s recognition scene, when she sees the three dots that had been tattooed on her baby’s heel (Villeneuve’s own gesture at Oedipus’s defining feature, the scarred heel) on a full-grown man whose face turns out to be that of her torturer. It’s a ridiculous coincidence, although the setting within a neighborhood of Arab immigrants makes it slightly less so, but that’s the inevitability of tragedy (and melodrama), and Villeneuve makes of the pool here something simultaneously elemental and completely mundane. Both locations are filmed as mythic opposites and also as contemporary, lived spaces (the Middle East scenes were shot in Jordan, using a number of nonprofessional actors, including Iraqi refugees).
Incendies walks a tightrope between a mythic meditation on the devastating consequences of war and a grounded realism of everyday suffering. Put another way, it’s midway between tragedy and melodrama. Given the story it narrates, the film is surprisingly understated. There are only three instances of explicit violence in the film: the murder of Wahab, the burning of the bus, and a sniper shooting. The distress of the characters is primarily imparted through sighs, silent tears, body language, and visual metaphor rather than through exclamatory language or emotional outbursts. Even Simon’s character has been toned down from his foul-mouthed theatrical counterpart. Still, melodrama is a staple in Quebec as in many national cinemas producing primarily for local consumption, and all three of the principal Québécois actors have worked extensively in local television and big-screen drama. Until his 2009 Polytechnique, the black-and-white dramatization of an infamous 1989 Montreal school shooting spree (starring Maxim Gaudette as the killer), Villeneuve had preferred the enigmatic art-film genre, although he has never been shy of sensationalism (Maëlstrom is narrated by a talking fish and opens with a graphic abortion scene). And he is certainly aware of the capacity of melodrama to raise political and aesthetic questions through heightened emotionality — Lubna Azabal’s Nawal is a classic melodrama heroine, her larger-than-life suffering bearing the symbolic weight of an entire nation, or even world. Villeneuve heightens this effect by casting Azabal in all three theatrical roles. Like the mature Carole Laure playing a pubescent Lola Montès in Max Ophuls’s classic melodrama, Nawal’s prematurely grown-up teenager and still youthful sexagenarian weight the symbolic continuity of her character over the distinct stages of a more chronological or developmental narrative. She has always been and always will be who she became as an adult.
Where Villeneuve (and Mouawad) derail the melodramatic impulse is in their elimination of the libidinal thread, for in melodrama it is love that drives and derails the heroine’s life and investment in politics. Nawal never uses her sexuality strategically, and, as she tells her companion Sawda in the play (the character was written out of the film), she had already had her love affair when she was 14. Here, the personal is trumped by the political, and there is no place for the libidinal in the equation. Yes, it is a love affair that results in the first child and the murder of the father, the orphaning, and the creation of a monster that later sires the twins out of hate. But, like the mother, Nihad appears to have been quieted by his life in Montreal, and we last see him living a solitary life, cleaning buses, and isolated, like Simon, in a humble apartment. There is, however a trace of the libidinal in the film, and a strange one at that. My viewing companion saw Incendies as a “right-to-life” movie, in that it mirrors the anti-abortion argument that no life, no matter how awful the circumstances, should ever be taken because we cannot predict what it will come to in the end. I resisted this interpretation as tendentious, but on a second viewing of the film and after reading the play, I find it difficult to dismiss out of hand, and not just because of my recollection of the brutal abortion scene that documents the shallow life of the callous heroine at the beginning of Maëlstrom. In Mouawad’s play, Nawal is punished further in prison by being forced to give birth alone, in her cell. In the film, we first see her pounding her belly in an attempt to force a miscarriage, and we next see her handcuffed to a hospital bed while a midwife coaches her in an extended, and highly conventional, birth scene. Villeneuve also elaborates a scene between Nawal and Chamseddine where he insists that she take her children with her. Moreover, he reframes both the bus scene and the sniper scene so that the central victim is a child. Finally, the concluding scene at the cemetery, moving as it is, also does argue, in perfect anti-abortion rhetoric, that even the most apparently irredeemable individual can be both redeemed and the vehicle for the redemption of others, and that the children of his vicious rape can turn out to be productive, good people. I don’t think Incendie is anti-abortion propaganda, and I do think that there is a progressive argument here about the way children bear the brunt of the cost of warfare. Nevertheless, it bears observing that the anti-abortion argument takes on a different order of persuasiveness if we think about it in the powerfully emotional context in which it occurs in Incendies.
But I also think it would be to sell the film short by settling on this reading, which, arguably, is a limited, Western, individualistic interpretation. In those many parts of the world where rape is a weapon of torture and an instrument of war, abortion is often neither an individual nor a collective option; what is necessary instead is a reckoning with the consequences of a disruption of the fundamental dynamic of the conventional family narrative. The slowly abating incomprehension of Jeanne and Simon faced with their imbrication in a history which they have no context to understand mirrors this situation, as does, in a different way, the figure of Girard’s notary. Among other things, Girard stands in for that conventional narrative in a film where most of the roles are played by Arab actors, and the other two principals are unknown faces beyond their local industry. Strangely enough, Girard’s character also introduces the most vertiginous possibilities, ones the film only hints at. The eloquent and moving letters read in the voice of the mother were, if what we are shown is any indication, dictated to and written down by the notary Jean Lebel. This means he has in fact known the secret all along, and he thus becomes something of a godlike figure, an objective bystander bound by the sanctity of his profession (hence the inclusion of the conversation with his equally godlike Lebanese counterpart). Girard/Lebel is stand-in both for the director himself and for the white Québécois, Canadian, and American viewer, deeply invested in but also outside of the sordid drama around him. Or perhaps not, if we take the conjecture a bit further and hypothesize that Lebel himself wrote the letters to disguise the more typical melodramatic convention, which would have had the missing son be the child of the rape and the assimilated twins the notary’s bastards. In the context of Incendies, this may sound ridiculous; in the context of a typical melodrama or soap opera, no plot turn could be more predictable. That the film refuses to countenance this easy solution, instead keeping Lebel an ambiguous figure on an ill-defined margin of the narrative, shows how far Villeneuve, Quebec, and Western cinema have come in their representation of the Orient — compare it, for instance, to Atom Egoyan’s intelligent and well-intentioned but profoundly flawed take on the Armenian holocaust in Ararat (2002). That Villeneuve’s film refuses wholly to rule out this possibility (there is no way, for example, to imagine the mother actually writing them, or, for that matter, dictating them, all the more so given the implausibility of the brief scene that would show her doing it) suggests the film’s awareness of how difficult it will be to lay that libidinal economy to rest. The end of Incendies in fact resolves nothing — not only is the arch-villain of the melodrama forgiven and allowed to remain free, but his actions are even shown to have been somehow comprehensible and not so different from those of his mother — and also resolves everything, since we are shown a way out of the entire melodramatic structure that has driven the endless warfare to that point. We may take that double-edged quality either as a sign of the film’s success or a sign of its failure; to my mind, it’s a welcome return of Villeneuve to the world stage and a potent blend of tragedy, melodrama, political filmmaking, and globalization theory.
- On the question of the country’s identity, Villeneuve says in the press release, “Beirut or Daresh? This question haunted me all the time I was writing the screenplay. I finally decided to follow the play and inscribe the film in an imaginary space as in Costa-Gavras’s Z, in order to disengage the film from any specific political stance.” [↩]
- They have also been a consistent theme of Villeneuve’s filmmaking and Canadian cinema in general. See in particular Brenda Longfellow’s articles “Counter-Narratives, Class Politics and Metropolitan Dystopia: Representations of Globalizaton in Maelström, waydowntown, and La Moitié gauche du frigo,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 13.1 (Spring 2004): 69–83; and “The Red Violin, Commodity Fetishism and Globalization.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 10.2 (2001): 6–20; also, my review of Atom Egoyan’s Adoration (Bright Lights 65). [↩]
- For details of this historical context, see Rainier Grutman and Heba Alah Ghadie, “Incendies de Wadji Mouawad: Les Méandres de la Mémoire,” Neohelicon 33 (2006): 91–108. [↩]