NZIFF ’11: Incendies

nziff ’11: Incendies
dir. Denis Villeneuve | Canada/France | 2010 | 130 mins.

The new film from Québécois director Denis Villeneuve is a deeply moving but harrowing—even at times gruelling—cinematic experience that absolutely lives up to its title. Based on a play by Lebanese-born Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies is a forceful, passionate drama about two twins—brother and sister—in their late twenties in modern-day Canada who, upon her passing, are read their mother’s will and given two envelopes: one for the father they presumed dead, and one for a brother they never knew existed. The twins travel to a (deliberately) unidentified mid-East country where warring religious factions rule by force in order to explore her mother’s hitherto obscure past. This contemporary exploration is intercut with a re-telling of the mother’s story from her point of view; the benefits afforded by such a structure should be obvious, and are perfectly exploited. The film is a visual marvel: certain shots and scenes all but demand being seen in the darkest of theatres with the biggest of screens, although outside intrusions (like rain falling on the tin roof of the cinema, as happened in the press screening I attended) certainly add to the experience.

This is Villeneuve’s fourth feature film; his Polytechnique—about the École Polytechnique massacre in 1989—used similarly disarming/shocking tactics, especially in its traumatic opening scene. Grégoire Hetzel’s sombre if occasionally operatic score is blended perfectly with two Radiohead songs: “You and Whose Army?” fades in during the film’s powerful opening scene (pictured above), accompanying images of what we eventually find out are child soldiers having their heads shaved, and the disorienting, warped “Like Spinning Plates,” in which Thom Yorke’s already slippery vocals are transfused and reversed, is used briefly in the film’s third act. (There’s also something that sounds like a version of “You and Whose Army?” sung in French that appears at one point, I think.) Villeneuve has said that he felt the same way after first seeing Mouawad’s play as he had when he first watched Apocalypse Now; it would be giving the play—and this film version—far too much praise to compare the two, not least because of its overcooked dramaturgical conceits. But there is something of a similar amount of forcefulness in this, even if—as some astute viewers will—you predict the dénouement long before it comes to pass.

After its nzff screenings, Incendies is now in theatres around the country.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals ran in Auckland from July 14–August 3, and in Wellington from July 29–August 14. They are en route to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout the rest of August, then travel to Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, to Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.