I spent the weekend visiting friends in NYC.
On Saturday night, I suggested we see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. They shot me down – I get it, not everyone wants to look at 30,000 year-old cave paintings – and then they suggested In a Better World. Darn – I’ve seen it already, and it’s not worth a repeat.
Wait! They say, what about this movie Incendies?
Okay…I remember seeing the preview for that. Looks dramatic as hell. It’s gotten some great reviews. It was nominated for an Oscar. Let’s give it a shot.
Hot holy hell – what a trial it was to sit through this film.
– POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD –
In Montreal, a notary reads a most curious will to a brother and sister (twins) after their mother passes. Essentially she has left them with two tasks: Find your father you never knew – he is alive. Find your brother you never knew you had while you’re at it. The daughter (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) is studying to be a mathematician. Wait for it – equations play a part. The son (Maxim Gaudette) is…well…they never really tell us what he does other than mope and whine. The daughter rushes to the Middle East to solve her mother’s mystery and hunt down her other brother, while the brother is more reluctant to uncover family secrets. Most of the action, spliced with intertwining flashbacks to the mother’s life, takes place in an unnamed Lebanon-esque country where Christians and Muslims have been at each other’s throats for ages.
In the flashbacks, we learn of the mother’s secrets and of the war that has ravaged the land. Lubna Azabal gives a stoic but electrifying performance that holds the convoluted storytelling in place. There are politics and motives that are never fully explained, and given the slow exploratory pace of the film that is supposed to allow the viewer to piece together the puzzle on their own, this becomes increasingly frustrating. There are scenes of senseless familial violence, assassinations, riots, torture and hatred bubbling in a hot cauldron that runneth over.
Though much of the film is muddled and contrived (more on that later), there are two haunting scenes that stick with you: the opening scene of orphans having their heads shaved by their militant captors (done to the tune of a Radiohead classic) and a shocking incident on a bus that paints a fiery hell across the barren landscape which can not be extinguished. Director Denis Villeneuve takes many pages from Fatih Akin’s somewhat structurally similar but far superior The Edge of Heaven. There are chapter stops and different POV’s, country-hopping and families learning of tragic secrets. Stylistically the films are eerily similar. Villeneuve is very adept at honing in on small details and capturing harrowing close-ups of his characters’ anguish. However, Incendies loses credibility as the plot thickens and never transcends the tragedy like The Edge of Heaven did so wondrously and far more subtly.
Then of course, there is the big twist. A savvier studio might’ve marketed this as “The Most Shocking On Screen Revelation since The Crying Game!” Don’t worry – it’s nothing like that – but it is interesting that in both films, the big shocker is revealed through an exposed/unexposed body part. Here, with Incendies, there is triangular focus on the heel of someone’s foot where a special mark was left. I saw the twist from a mile away when in a pivotal scene, the camera lingers on one man’s heels as he leaves a room…heels that are covered by boots…leaving the keenest of viewers to wonder…are that man’s heels like another’s? Here’s where simple math comes into play. I credit both the writer and the film buff inside me for catching this, whereas those I was with did not pick up on the small detail and were totally blown away by the twist. Hell, one poor woman who questioned us as the credits rolled didn’t get it at all and was still confused. I’m not sure why – they do spell it out quite plainly in the end, though I guess maybe she just didn’t want to believe it because it’s so revolting to even imagine. As I literally started doing the math in my head, this bitter pill of ill-gotten hope became even harder to swallow. It’s one doozy of a contrived, sickening, Greek tragedy-style plot twist. In comes on the heels (all puns intended) of a series of contrivances and coincidences that eventually lead you to realize the mother was some sort of sick task-master who thought that the revelation of the darkest most horrible of secrets would somehow set all those whom she loved (and hated) free. Finally, some peace could be had but not until all characters were sacrificed for the plot and the message. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t want peace that comes at this price – in reality or in the context of a contrived little movie.
Villeneuve knows the ropes here, but he tightens them too harshly, inviting viewers to hang themselves with his noose. His film is calculated, measured, and searing with impending doom and sadness. It’s also disgusting, contrived, and falsely hopeful. Yes, it’s the kind of film that could cause a minor cause-de-celebre among art-house patrons due to the hot-button nature of its setting and that shocking plot twist.
It’s well made. It’s well acted. It’s interesting. It’s thought-provoking.
But I hated it.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Sidenote: We suffered through Incendies at Landmark’s Sunshine House on E. Houston Street on the Lower East Side – an otherwise lovely venue. At least we had a great meal beforehand at Rayuela at 165 Allen Street. For those from the Philly area like me, imagine Cuba Libre if it was redone by Amada’s chef Jose Garces. The “Solomillo Montes de Oca” (their signature grilled beef tenderloin) was out of this world. Highly recommended.