SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | April 3, 2011
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Denis Villeneuve, Wajdi Mouawad
Starring: Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Lubna Azabal, Maxim Gaudette
After their mother Nawal’s (Lubna Azabal) death, twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are faced with a puzzle that they must solve in order to fulfill their mother’s last will and testament. According to their mother’s most recent employer (Rémy Girard) — a notary who was designated as the will’s executor — two letters must be delivered, one to their father and one to their brother. This is a puzzle because Jeanne and Simon assumed that their father was long dead and this is the first time that they have ever heard about the existence of any siblings.
Simon wants nothing at all to do with their lunatic mother’s crazy mind games, so it is Jeanne (quite purposefully a mathematician, therefore a staunch believer in absolute answers) who embarks upon the journey from Montreal to the fictional city of Daresh — which is located in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation (probably Lebanon) — in search of their family’s roots and to fulfill their mother’s postmortem wishes. As Jeanne digs deeper into Nawal’s past she discovers a woman she never knew existed. For starters, Jeanne discovers that Nawal’s memory is very much alive in Daresh — but not in a good way — as Jeanne is told by the local women, “You are not welcome here.” (Not a good start.) Meanwhile, the audience witnesses Nawal’s past by way of flashbacks, causing the past and the present to run parallel to each other in the context of the narrative.
Nawal’s life as a Christian living in the Middle East is marred by tragedy: she witnesses the murder of her unborn child’s father at the hands of her own family; she gives birth to the child, whom she then has to abandon immediately; she is the lone survivor after a bus of Muslim women is shot up and burned by Christian nationalists (who flaunt images of the Virgin Mary on their machine guns – oh, the irony); she assassinates her homeland’s Christian nationalist leader; she endures endless rapings, by the same prison guard, while incarcerated in prison.
By never naming the Middle Eastern nation, writer-director Denis Villeneuve purposefully avoids any sense of historical specificity; he cares more about focusing on the endless cycles of violence in the Middle East. Villeneuve takes aim specifically at the religious influences on the violence. Nawal is a modern woman of Christian descent in an Arabic-speaking country. As a direct result of the fate of her baby and baby-daddy, Nawal grows to hate that the nationalist cause is being waged in the name of Christianity. The personal becomes political as Nawal joins the Muslim opposition’s militia and becomes a political assassin in the hope of retrieving her son (who has presumably been kidnapped by Muslim soldiers during a raid on the Christian orphanage in which he was held). To further signify her wavering religious identity and allegiance, Nawal alternates between wearing a Christian cross and a Muslim head scarf — depending on which religion plays to her advantage at that specific moment in time.
It is worth mentioning that Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated film (which was adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s stage play of the same title) opens as young Middle Eastern boys queue up to have their heads shaved, signaling their initialization as soldiers, to the soundtrack of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army”. This is a brilliant use of “You and Whose Army” — other Radiohead tunes are found sprinkled throughout Incendies, but none work quite as well as this one track.