Dir: Denis Villenueve; starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette.
(WARNING: SPOILERS ALERT!)
Following the death of Nawal Marwan, a Canadian immigrant, her two children, fraternal twins Jeanne and Simon, meet with French Canadian notary Jean Lebel, a friend of their mother. Nawal’s will makes reference to not keeping a promise, denying her a proper gravestone and casket, unless Jeanne and Simon track down their mysterious brother, whose existence they were previously unaware of, and their father, whom they believed was dead.
A series of flashbacks reveal Nawal came from an Eastern Orthodox Christian Arab family in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, and that she fell in love with a Palestinian refugee, resulting in her pregnancy. Her family murders her lover and nearly shoots her as an honour killing, but her grandmother spares her, tattoos the baby and abandons him, and sends Nawal to the fictional city of Daresh. While at school, a civil war and war crimes break out as Christian nationalists attack Muslims and refugees, with Nawal opposing the war on human rights grounds. Her son’s orphanage in Kfar Khout is destroyed by the nationalists, and unknown to her, her son has been rescued by a Muslim warlord, Chamseddine, who converts him into an Islamic child soldier. Seeking revenge for the loss of her son, Nawal joins the Muslim fighters and shoots a nationalist leader. Afterwards, she is imprisoned in Kfar Ryat and raped by torturer Abou Tareq. She consequently gives birth to the twins.
After travelling to her mother’s native country, Jeanne uncovers this past, and persuades Simon, who is angry with his mother’s unusual personality, to join her. With help from Lebel, they learn their brother’s name is Nihad of May and track down Chamseddine. Simon meets with him personally, and he reveals the war-mad Nihad was captured by the nationalists, joined their army, and took the name Abou Tareq, making him both the twins’ half-brother and father. Nihad had immigrated to Canada and Nawal only learned his true identity after recognizing him at a Canadian swimming pool and seeing his tattoo. The twins find Nihad in Canada and deliver Nawal’s letters to him without speaking to him. Nawal gets a gravestone, which Nihad visits.
Lubna Azabal as Nawal Marwan
Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as Jeanne Marwan
Maxim Gaudette as Simon Marwan
Rémy Girard as Jean Lebel
Abdelghafour Elaaziz as Abou Tarek/Nihad “Nihad de Mai” Harmanni
Allen Altman as Notary Maddad
Mohamed Majd as Chamseddine
Nabil Sawalha as Fahim
Baya Belal as Maika
Bader Alami as Nicolas
Karim Babin as Chamseddine’s guard
Anthony Ecclissi as Lifeguard
Joyce Raie as Student Journalist
Yousef Shweihat as Sharif
Celine Soulier as French Journalist
Mher Karakashian as Chamseddine’s assistant
Director Denis Villeneuve adapted Wajdi Mouawad’s play Incendies after seeing it performed in Montreal in 2004.
Parts of the story were based on the life of Souha Bechara.The story is based on events that happened during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 to 1990, but the filmmakers attempted to make the location of the plot ambiguous.
Director Denis Villeneuve first saw Wajdi Mouawad’s play Incendies at Théâtre de Quat’Sous in Montreal in 2004, commenting “I had this strong intuition that I was in front of a masterpiece”. Villeneuve acknowledged unfamiliarity with Arab culture, but was drawn to Incendies as “a modern story with a sort of Greek tragedy element”. In adapting the screenplay, Villeneuve, while keeping the story structure and characters, replaced “all” the dialogue, even envisioning a silent film, abandoning the idea due to expense. He showed Mouawad some completed scenes to convince the initially reluctant playwright to grant permission for the film. Villeneuve spent five years working on the screenplay, in between directing two films. Mouawad later praised the film as “brilliantly elegant” and gave Villeneuve full credit. The project had a budget of $6.5 million,and received funding from Telefilm Canada.
Belgian actress Lubna Azabal was cast as Nawal after an extensive search, and won Best Actress at Belgium’s Magritte Awards and Canada’s Genie Awards.
For the part of Nawal, Villeneuve said he conducted an extensive search for actresses across Canada. He considered casting the main character to be the most challenging, and at one point contemplated using two or three actresses to play the character, since the story spans four decades. He finally met Moroccan Belgian actress Lubna Azabal in Paris, intrigued by her “expressive and eloquent” face in Paradise Now (2005).Although she was 30, Villeneuve thought she appeared 18 and could play the part throughout the entire film, using makeup.
Villeneuve selected Canadian actress Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin to play Jeanne, saying the role required listening skills and Désormeaux-Poulin is “a very generous actress”. Before Incendies, Désormeaux-Poulin was mainly known for “light fare”. Montreal actor Allen Altman, who played a notary, worked with a dialect coach for hours to develop a blend of the French and Arab accents before auditioning. While shooting in Jordan, to research his role, actor Maxim Gaudette toured a Palestinian refugee camp near Amman.
Some of the 15 days of filming in Jordan was done in Amman.
The film was shot in Montreal and Jordan. The film took 40 days to shoot, of which 15 were spent in Jordan, with Villeneuve aiming to film no scene without being sure it would not be cut.
For the scenes filmed in Jordan, Villeneuve used a Lebanese and Iraqi crew, though he feared the war scenes would be too reminiscent of bad experiences for them. However, he said the Arab crew members felt “It’s important that those sorts of stories are on the screen”.Some of the filming in Jordan took place in the capital of Amman.To recreate Beirut, art director André-Line Beauparlant built up rock and debris on a street in Amman.
Incendies was officially selected to play in the 2010 Venice Film Festival, 2010 Telluride Film Festival, 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, 2011 Sundance Film Festival and 2011 New Directors/New Films Festival. The film opened in Toronto and Vancouver in January 2011.
In the United States, the film was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.When the film was screened in Beirut in March 2011, Villeneuve claimed “a lot of people said to me that we should show this film to their children, to show them what they had been through”.
REVIEW: The Guardian:
From its arresting opening to its shattering conclusion, the Canadian film Incendies is muscular, emotional film-making of the highest order, self-confident in its delivery yet always respectful of its characters’ plight. It starts in slo-mo, to the sound of Radiohead, in what looks like a children’s Qu’ran school, in a desert, where we see boys having their heads shaved by soldiers. One of the boys fixes the camera with a chilling stare as hair falls around his feet.
The film then switches to a law firm in Montreal, where a mother’s will is being read to her grief-stricken twins, daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and son Simon (Maxim Gaudette). The lawyer Maître Lebel is played by the great Quebecois actor Rémy Girard, from another Canadian family saga, Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions Barbares. This, too, is a tale of family, identity and, perhaps, forgiveness as the will sets Jeanne, a student of pure maths, off on a quest to discover what happened in her mother Nawal’s past as she was growing up in the Middle East.
The film cuts from Nawal’s (Belgium-born actress Lubna Azabal) turbulent past back to Melissa as she, listening to Radiohead on her iPod, sifts the war-ravaged ruins of this unspecified country in the present.
Director Denis Villeneuve, adapting a stage play by Wajdi Mouawad, daubs chapter headings in a bold red font across the screen, helpful signposts as we plunge deeper into this mystery, yet one always has the sense the film knows exactly where it’s headed.
Even as it deals with the tangled knots left by conflict, Villeneuve never seems deceptive with his storytelling. “War has a merciless logic,” a former warlord tells Melissa, and this story powers to a climax some might find contrived but which left me reeling, as if whacked over the head with a hardback copy of a Dickens novel.
REVIEW – Daily Telegraph:
Denis Villeneuve’s French-Canadian film Incendies is in essence a family drama, astonishingly intense but impressively poised. It begins in the style of a detective thriller, yet its climax is reminiscent of Greek tragedy.
In Quebec, a notary named Lebel summons Jeanne and Simon, the twin children of Nawal, a recently deceased woman from the Middle East, for the reading of her will. He hands them each an envelope: one for their father, who they thought was dead, the other for a brother they never knew existed.
Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) immediately sets off for the Middle East to uncover the mystery of Nawal’s life. Simon (Maxim Gaudette), who clearly has issues with his mother, initially stays behind, but then relents.
What the twins uncover there (in a non-specific country that most closely resembles Lebanon) is shocking. But the main character in Incendies is Nawal, superbly played by the Belgian-Moroccan actress Lubna Azabal. Her scenes are all in flashback, and we see her first as an idealistic teenager, as a rebellious adult fighting for justice and as a prisoner suffering brutality. Her story features child soldiers, episodes of war, terrorism and sectarian violence.
Incendies (it means “scorched”) is based on a stage play by the Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad. In adapting it for film, Villeneuve has pared down the narrative, gradually revealing salient points about Nawal’s life as the twins pursue their quest.
For an outsider, he has also captured a troubled region of the Middle East with urgent clarity; yet it also features a dream-like opening sequence, whose meaning only becomes clear later) showing young boys having their heads shaved. Villeneuve also elicits remarkable performances from all his leading cast. Little wonder that Incendies was nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar this year – and in retrospect, surprising that it failed to win.
Events inexorably lead to a shocking ending, which at first feels like a plot twist. Then you think back, and realise it was embedded in the narrative from the very start. Incendies is no one’s idea of a joyful ride, but it’s a remarkable work, and its complex story etches itself on the memory.
REVIEW – Seven Magazine
Seven rating: * * * *
Incendies is Denis Villeneuve’s haunting adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play, which describes how adult twins travel to the Middle East as detectives in their own family history, by unravelling a mystery which their late mother bequeathed them in her will.
She has given them a letter to deliver to their father, and another one to their brother, neither of whom they have ever met. The mother’s story, often told in flashback, reveals the agonising human cost of civil war.
There are some structural flaws, but Villenueve has an affectingly realistic directorial style, and Lubna Azabal delivers an extraordinarily powerful performance as the mother.
Rotten Tomatoes: Score: 92%