Love it or hate it—and there are plenty of reasons to land on either end of that spectrum—Canada’s 2010 Best Foreign Language Film nominee Incendies is hard to forget. In part that’s because it’s an agonizingly well-crafted slog through a series of shocking emotional extremes. In part, it’s because its final twists are so profoundly unlikely that they not only beggar belief, they call the whole project into question. Viewers may walk away from the film feeling unnecessarily manipulated, but that manipulation tends to be bitterly effective.
Lubna Azabal is profoundly intense as a middle-aged woman who, just before her abrupt death, pens a series of puzzling instructions for her twin adult children, starting with the insistence that she be buried naked, face-down, without casket, headstone, or epitaph. Her son (Maxim Gaudette) categorically dismisses this and her other demands, but her daughter (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) attempts to fulfill her mother’s last wishes by traveling from their Canadian home to an unnamed Middle Eastern country (with a history borrowed from Lebanon) and tracing her mother’s history via a highly tenuous series of connections and rumors. Writer-director Denis Villeneuve alternates Désormeaux-Poulin’s amateur detective work with sequences revealing the decades-old story she’s investigating, as a teenage Azabal becomes pregnant out of wedlock and becomes, successively, a victim of her family’s repressive mores, a sweeping civil war, a religious massacre, a vicious serial rapist/torturer, and many other spirit-crushing experiences. Her indomitability throughout is meant to be uplifting, but since the movie sees her more as a delivery device for narrative injustice than as a person, it’s never clear how she endures, or who she is as a person under all the pain. And her personality over time is inconsistent enough that she never coheres as an individual.
Granted, that could be intended as a narrative fidelity to point of view, since Désormeaux-Poulin learns everything second-hand. Her inability to uncover subjective reactions as well as objective events is just one of the endless jury-rigged cruelties that often make the story seem like a masochistic wallow. But the film does little to support that deeper reading; Villeneuve (working from a play by Lebanese-born writer Wajdi Mouawad) never touches on the deeper conundrums of Azabal’s identity, or the intentions behind her bizarre final bequests. Still, he does present her history with style, beginning with a striking opening sequence of glowering, bruised boys getting their heads shaved to the angry sounds of Radiohead, and continuing through a compelling unfolding mystery marked with gripping action sequences. So much of Incendies is powerfully executed that it’s all the more frustrating when it finally devolves into contrived melodrama. While the film will likely stick with viewers, it’s ultimately a tossup what they’ll remember most: the stunning buildup, or the massive letdown.