Applauded in Cannes, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies tells the story of French-Canadian twins, Jeanne and Simon, on their quest to learn who their mother really was. At the reading of her will, the siblings are asked to deliver two letters – one for their father, and the other one for their brother – of whose existence they were not aware. They are to bury their mother only after the task has been completed. Shocked by this unexpected blackmail from the grave, the twins embark on a journey of overwhelming revelations and self-discovery.
Incendies opens in an undefined desert landscape where we witness a group of boys queuing up to have their heads shaved. Villeneuve surprises from this very first scene by deciding to acknowledge the presence of the camera; one boy (whose identity is explored later in the film) gazes angrily at the audience while the camera tracks in on his bruised face. The whole scene is filmed in slow-motion and accompanied by Radiohead’s You and Whose Army? Transforming the threatening stare into a poignant symbol of pointless brutality explored further in the film.
And indeed there is no shortage of cruelty. Villeneuve’s film is full of truly gritty and violent elements. There are scenes which can shock and make you cringe, however their presence is necessary for understanding the emotional intensity between Jeanne, Simon, and their mother Nawai.
The mysteries drawn at the beginning of the film gradually unravel which makes Incendies particularly fascinating, and even individuals suffering from a short attention span may find themselves anxiously leaning towards the screen as the gripping journey develops. There is also something interesting happening with the soundtrack, particularly reoccurring Radiohead songs. Perhaps Villeneuve is simply a massive fan of the band but there seems to be meaning behind it. Each song acts as an apt commentary on what is occurring on-screen, particularly the opening track which, more than once, accompanies transitions between Nawai’s world and the twins’ journey.
The film is divided into ten parts, half of which shows Jeanne and Simon’s journey through their mother’s native country, and other half shows Nawai’s life story from before the twins were born. Chapters are organised interchangeably which prolongs the final discovery, contributing to the growing tension. However, what Incendies builds up to may strike some viewers as unrealistic and soap opera-like. The concluding revelation of the film, as fascinating as it is, is not the most plausible one. Nevertheless, Incendies is a great film about family, overcoming ghosts of the past, and self-discovery. I would recommend it to anyone who is after a more challenging watch during a summer of superheroes, wizards, and talking cars.
Kosma Lechowicz is a Screen Lounge Assistant at Phoenix Square. He is in his final year of Film Studies and English at De Montfort University. Apart from films and books, his interests include music and video art.