The apolitical nature of Incendies, a novelistic melodrama about the way terrorism effects people on a personal level, is strangely more irksome than the film's tempestuous and highly controversial final twist. That last revelation initially seems gratuitous, but it's at least essential to one of the film's major themes: Nobody can understand the role they play in their loved one's lives, especially not the people that are most affected by violence. But still Incendies's drama revolves around a daughter's quest to learn more about her mother, a condemned political prisoner and terrorist. The fact that we don't know what her mom stood for beyond a basic need to protect her family makes the film's lack of historical context troubling.
Incendies is broken up into several chapters whose breaks are broadcast with the kind of massive, bold, and totally unmissable font that Kubrick used to mark time in The Shining. Writer-director Denis Villeneuve refuses to situate his characters' stories within anything more than the most basic frame of reference. As such, the catalyst for Villeneuve's plot is simply Jeanne's (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) quest to find her truant father and deliver a sealed envelope left to him from his recently deceased wife Nawal (Lubna Azabal).
Jeanne's journey leads her to realize that she never knew whom her mother was, which makes her need to find her father that much more pressing. Simon (Maxim Gaudette), her brother, is cooler about the matter, and let's Jeanne travel to Palestine on her own. He refuses to honor his mother's last request to deliver a sealed envelope to his half-brother. Most of Incendies is bifurcated between Jeanne's story and Nawal's, or at least the story of why Nawal ostracized herself from her family and how and why she wound up giving her two children the two envelopes. Incendies is, in that sense, a mystery that happens to be more about family ties than political intrigue.
As mannered and precise as Villeneuve's mise-en-scène and pacing is, this fundamentally leaves something to be desired. Nawal takes it upon herself to assassinate a Nationalist leader, a necessarily ideologically motivated action. But she doesn't commit murder because she necessarily agrees with the anti-Nationalist cause: She does it because she suffered a personal loss that made her resent the Nationalists' methods. Like the anti-Nationalists, she is a Christian, making her decision motivated by emotional logic more than what she believes in. Because Incendies follows Jeanne as she learns more and more about her mother, the fact that there's nothing to get about her mother's actions beyond a basic need to get revenge is inherently dissatisfying.
Still, if nothing else, Villeneuve has the courage to conceive of a scenario that's so aggressively alienating that it's bound to drive home its conceptually innocuous point about how, as Nawal says, "being together is all that matters." After all, had Villeneuve not used his film's final twist to implicate Nawal, he'd be letting her, the most decisive but naïve character in the film, too easily off the hook. She falls prey to the assumption that she can have an eye for an eye by avenging an act of terrorism with another act of terrorism—and she winds up suffering for it. The histrionic nature of Nawal's punishment is necessary, even if it does incidentally make Incendies seem too crass for its own good.
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