After receiving alarmingly abnormal instructions from the mother's will, the grieving daughter, Jeanne (played very effectively by Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) decides to embark on a journey to the land of her origin in order to fulfil her half of her mother's orders (the other half belonging to her twin brother).
Based on the acclaimed play by Wajdi Mouawad, the story never specifies exactly where it takes place. It is obvious that the parts describing the secret past of Nawal, and later the twins' quest to uncover it take place in a Middle Eastern country. However, most location names are fictional and the film is in Arabic and French, and although the story of the conflict at the heart of this movie recalls past events in Lebanon, it's impossible to guess exactly where the film is set.
This blanket over any geographical or political certainty makes this film all the more riveting. Although the conflict between Muslim and Christian forces is at the centre of this epic narrative, Incendies manages to remove almost all traces of any bias, mostly through Nawal's involvement in both sides of the conflict. This in itself is a significant achievement, considering the divided state of the world.
Aside from the absolutely gripping story of love, loss and discovery, the cinematic style that Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has so expertly honed in past projects (most recently, in Polytechnique) perfectly offsets the breakneck speed at which the story progresses. Villeneuve divides the film into titled portions referring to either a place or a character, ridding the viewer of the confusion that habitually accompanies films of this depth and subject matter.
Villeneuve also wields another powerful weapon with a perfectly fitted minimalist soundtrack. One of the most striking elements of the music is a periodic piercing, monotone sound that lends a terrifying element to an already disturbing story. Even more notable is the use of a select few Radiohead tracks, in particular Like Spinning Plates, which fit the story perfectly with their trademark genius melancholy.
The film’s most unforgettable element, however, must be the actors’ performances. As Nawal Marwan, Lubna Azabal illuminates the screen with the quiet furor of a mother betrayed by those close to her and on the never-ending hunt for a child she has only seen once before. Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, who plays the quiet yet determined twin sister, lends an incredible fragility to the role, along with hints of the strength reflected in the character of her mysterious mother.
It is not until later that one really gets to know the twin brother, Simon (played by Maxim Gaudette), yet his performance is as charged as Desormeaux-Poulin’s is tranquil. Helping the twins on their seemingly impossible quest is the friend and former employer of Nawal, the amiable Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), who provides an anchoring role for the twins in the absence of parental guidance. Incendies is, in a word, extraordinary. It is not afraid to cleverly tackle incendiary issues that would have, in any other interpretation, come off as tired or tiresome. Movies like this one (though there are very few) prove that you don’t have to secure a Hollywood-size budget and hire Hollywood actors. As a front-runner for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, Incendies will set Hollywood alight.