Appropriately for a film about the enduring legacy of formative experiences, Incendies opens with one of its most striking sequences. Though we do not yet know the context, the sight of tear-stained, blood-speckled children held still by soldiers while their heads are shaved is an indelible one. As their young faces convey a haunting combination of resignation and fear, Radiohead’s mournful 'You and Whose Army?' beckons 'come on if you think you can take us all on', pre-empting themes of animosity and intolerance. Gradually, one child is singled out from the throng via a close-up of his tattooed heel, the inked skin’s full, terrible meaning yet to be learned. In slow motion, the camera moves to meet the boy’s direct stare. His unflinching gaze appears confrontational and accusatory, until we get close enough to register the moisture in his eyes, signalling not only malignant hate, but a devastatingly deep trauma.
The sequence segues to a record-filled office in Canada, where the central plot is initiated by notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), entrusted with executing the recently-deceased Nawal Marwan’s (Lubna Azabal) last will and testament. Nawal’s twin children Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) are cryptically informed that their absent father is still living; furthermore, they have an older brother they previously knew nothing about. Two letters, addressed simply to ‘the son’ and ‘the father’, are presented to the grieving siblings; only when they are delivered will Nawal consent to burial. 'Childhood is a knife stuck in your throat,' their mother’s will continues, 'It can’t be easily removed.' Again, it is only in retrospect that the epitaph yields its full meaning.
Director Denis Villeneuve, adapting (and paring down) Wajdi Mouawad’s three-and-a-half hour stage play, admits that Incendies took him out of his comfort zone. 'The hardest thing was working in a milieu outside my own,' Villeneuve explains in an interview with Sight & Sound. 'I’d been to the Middle East before, but I still felt like a total tourist… I think that’s why I approached the story from the angle of the family: like me, the twins are outsiders in this Arab culture.'
Their journey to the unnamed Middle Eastern country where their mother grew up is told non-chronologically, with scenes alternating between their present-day investigation, and vignettes from Nawal’s tumultuous life. At first, Jeanne and Simon’s discoveries precede their confirmatory flashbacks; later, secrets are revealed first to the audience, and only later to the twins, as the weight of their ancestry threatens to engulf them.
Though the country in question is evidently Lebanon, Villeneuve and Mouawad opt not to state so explicitly. Costa-Gavras employed a similar strategic ambiguity in his 1969 Oscar-winner Z, opening the film by stating 'Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is not coincidental. It is DELIBERATE.' Though manifestly a dramatisation of Grigoris Lambrakis’ assassination, the decision to avoid any categorical confirmation arguably broadened Z’s referential range, and, by extension, its political impact. Gavras utilised the technique again in State of Siege (1972) and Missing (1982), which obliquely depicted the 1970 kidnapping of Dan Mitrione in Uruguay, and the disappearance of an American journalist in Pinochet’s Chile respectively. Stamping either with a precise setting, Gavras argued, would render the subject matter local and historical, divorcing it from the here and now of the audience whom he hoped to enlighten and inspire.
In the case of Incendies, the ciphered setting seems less politically motivated, instead indicating the film’s emotional, rather than intellectual, ambitions. To quote from another Radiohead song to feature on the soundtrack, 'while you were making pretty speeches, I’m being cut to shreds': it is not the angry rhetoric of the pulpit, courtroom or government chamber that gives Incendies its formidable power, but the arousal of empathy; not the persuasion of politics, but the immediate, visceral horror of murder, rape and torture. The abstraction also allows Villeneuve to allude to a complex history without risk of lecturing or polemic. By not subjecting the Lebanese civil war to direct analysis, he cannot be accused of failing to parse its vicissitudes. Instead, the film can be emphatically commended for its emotional resonances, of which little can be said here without spoiling the impact of the film’s carefully-ordered succession of grim revelations.
Incendies’ non-linear examination of history’s oppressive residue recalls the work of fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan – like Mouawad, an émigré from the Middle East. For example, Ararat (2002) probed similar themes of diasporic identity and traumatic heritage, and though Incendies’ core trauma is a more intimate event, on a smaller scale than the Armenian genocide, it is no less brutal and upsetting. To return to 'You and Whose Army?' (as the film itself does on multiple occasions), Thom Yorke’s weary admonition 'you forget so easily' has, by the close, been firmly corrected. For those exposed to a war in which buses are torched with their passengers still screaming inside; where orphanages are destroyed and their inhabitants trained to kill; where rape is used as a weapon against prisoners – for the victims, witnesses and perpetrators of such a war, there is no forgetting; nor for the subsequent generation left to contend with wounds both physical and psychological. Instead, the best that can be hoped for is understanding. As one character notes, 'Death is never the end of the story; it always leaves tracks.'
Researcher and freelance writer
University of Glasgow
 Tom Dawson (2011) ‘Blood Lines: Denis Villeneuve on Incendies’ Sight and Sound, accessed 27 June 2011. http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/featuresandinterviews/interviews/incendies-denis-villeneuve.php
 Constantin Gavras ‘Missing’ (1984) in Dan Georgakas and Lenny Rubenstein (eds.) Art, Politics, Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews (Pluto Press, London) p. 392