Saturday, April 5, 2014

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)

A family on fire.

"Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter... Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold... that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle."
 – Dr Manhattan (Watchmen, 1987)

Starting off like a typical 'family' film as we get to see the twin siblings Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) trying to make sense of their late mother's strange last will, the film makes it apparent that the film's conflict will strongly be of familial nature, and its plot revelations be more implosive in tone. "Incendies", which is basically Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" minus all the prophecies and is based on a play written by Wajdi Mouawad, is Denis Villeneuve's quiet yet intense study of a nuclear family that harbors a secret so painful that it gives the film a distinct feel of a horror story. The film may not be necessarily entertaining or generally appealing for audience to thoroughly enjoy, but it is the kind which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and then makes you wonder if such bitterness is really that of a bad thing.

"Incendies", as what I've repeatedly said about emotionally unsettling films, is a difficult one to sit through, but will nonetheless make you sit back in awe at Villeneuve's deftness as a peculiar storyteller. Instead of letting the film progress just like the objective mystery piece that it should be, Villeneuve is quick on shifting the film's point of view, with it jumping from the twins', their long-lost brother's, to their mother Nawal Marwan's, and then back again. There's also this ambivalent placing of blood-red title cards in the beginning of each of the film's chapter, which does nothing but enforce the film's narrative ambiguity even more. The heavy reliance on political and religious overtones, coupled with the positioning of Nawal Marwan as a reckless activist, also cleverly distracts from the film's shocking twist in the end, which, as what I've mentioned, hits close to freaking home as any bloody secret can get.

The performances in the film, which are all quiet, naturalistic, and nothing particularly scene-stealing or remarkable, take the backseat in favor of the film's slew of heavy and perception-altering revelations, which is, admittedly, "Incendies'" true selling point. Lubna Azabal's turn as Nawal Marwan, however, is, simply put, nothing short of stunning, which is only fitting because her character is, without a doubt, the film's heart and soul.   

Again, just like any other film with such a quiet, economical pacing, it may really take a while before "Incendies" can grab your attention. But once it does, rest assured, it is as tight as any strongman's grip, and the bad news is that it will keep on tightening the more you think about the film. It's a 'Holy shit, what the hell have I just seen?!' type of cinematic experience, and I tell you, its effect simply just won't go away. And even though its impact ranges from the religious to the utterly ideological, what "Incendies" is all about is how it has miraculously managed to make a film about an otherwise obscure conflict in an equally unknown Middle Eastern country and make it very personal and relatable regardless of racial boundaries. The film is a powerful examination of faith marred by senseless conflicts, and also of fate and how it oftentimes fucks everything up to the point that life ultimately mirrors the cruel formula of a Greek tragedy. But as what this film suggests, out of such an anomalous fate, out of a myriad of almost literary misfortunes arises a certain kind of miracle that "Incendies", despite it being a thematically unsettling film, was able to hold on to the same way Dr. Manhattan, a God-like entity, did when he mused about how the conception of human life is the reason why the world is worth saving.

Villeneuve may have directed the most disturbing family film there ever will be, but in the middle of "Incendies'" abundant cynicism, he also wants to make it known that there's still something pure and outwardly lovely in the sordid little truth that the Marwans are trying to unearth. Suffice it to say, there's still an element of bittersweet pain in finding out a certain secret no matter how pedestrian or persistently life-changing it is. This then reminds me of the ending to Roman Polanski's "Chinatown". Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), after witnessing with his own eyes how a decades-old secret savagely unravel, his friend whispered to him, distraught and all, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Now, if only someone can gently whisper the same to any of the Marwans, then coping would be easier. Or would it? Though the film's story consistently progresses with closure in mind, the film is still, by and large, a haunted soul. The secret was known, but then what? Villeneuve seems content in ending his film with a depleted sigh of relief and chests heavy with sadness and guilt. And as how Dr. Manhattan would put it, "It ends with you in tears."

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