x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Incendies: flawless performances elevate morality tale

Working from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, director Denis Villeneuve weaves a story of head-spinning emotional complexity.

Incendies
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
*****

After Nawal Marwan's (Azabal) abrupt death, her twin adult children find a series of confounding instructions penned by their mother - she is to be buried naked, without casket or headstone, lying facedown as if looking "away from the world". The conundrum presented to the French-Canadian siblings - as well as the viewer - sets off a detective story that's as harrowing, but ultimately rewarding, as any in recent film history.

The letters, left in Marwan's last will and testament, reach back to her youth in a nameless Middle Eastern country (based closely on Lebanon), where as a teen she fell pregnant out of wedlock.

Scenes of the young woman's plight are played out against the backdrop of a bloody civil war and are seamlessly intercut with her daughter Jeanne's (Désormeaux-Poulin) present-day attempt to make sense of the mystery. The oppressive tone is lightened at times with well-observed humour about loose Middle Eastern timekeeping. But make no mistake, this is a story about the inhuman things people do to one another in the name of a cause.

The film's opening shots of glassy-eyed child soldiers, receiving buzz-cuts to Radiohead's angry You And Whose Army? make this point more effectively than any other.

Working from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Villeneuve weaves a story of head-spinning emotional complexity (thanks in part to flawless performances), but without getting bogged down by realism. In fact, it's when the film deviates towards the melodramatic, and even asks its audience to buy into a pair of highly improbable coincidences, that it feels most accomplished and oddly satisfying.