Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
This is the eighth in a series of twelve movies suggested by Chip Lary.
We all classify films in a bunch of different ways. I’m not talking about genre, but about personal classifications. There are movies that we love, ones we love more than we should because we saw them as kids, guilty pleasures, films we hate that everyone else loves, and more. For me, one of the most interesting personal categories is films that I respect but never want to see again. That’s precisely where we are going with Incendies, a film that takes us to some dark places and concludes on some very dark territory.
Truthfully, though, Incendies falls into a few personal categories for me. It is an impressive film that I plan to never watch again, but it’s also a movie that I think I like a little less than other people do. I’m about on average on Letterboxd, but the way that people talk about this film, it would seem that I’m damning it with faint praise giving it a four out of five on that site. This isn’t a film that people seem to be tepid about, and I get that. There’s a lot here to unpack.
Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) has a stroke one day at a public swimming pool and soon dies. Her twin children, son Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and daughter Jeanne (Melissa Desrmeaux-Poulin) are called in for a reading of the will by Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), a notary and a friend of Nawal. He hands each of the children an envelope. Jeanne is charged with finding their father; Simon with finding their brother. And thus we start down a long, twisting, and eventually dark path through Nawal’s past.
Here’s what we know going in—Nawal comes from somewhere in the Middle East (presumably Lebanon, since some of the story is based on events from there). Unusual (but not unheard of) for the area, she is a Christian, and years ago she emigrated to Canada from this unnamed country of her birth. She arrived in Canada with the twins and lived there ever since. Neither Jeanne nor Simon know anything about their father and neither of them know that they have a brother. Nawal’s will suggests that she cannot even be given a headstone until the father and brother are located.
So, what we get is a back and forth between Jeanne’s search in the home country and Nawal’s story from her past. We learn that her initial pregnancy came via a man killed by her brothers, and that her first son was shipped off to an orphanage to help mitigate the family’s shame at Nawal’s behavior. We learn that Nawal was eventually caught up in the war and that despite being a Christian in this country, she sees that most of the terrible events, or at least those that most negatively affect her, are perpetrated by the Christian Phalangists. This includes a massacre of a busload of fleeing refugees, of which Nawal is the only survivor. Later, when she encounters one of the Christian military leaders, she remembers perpetrators of the massacre wearing shirts with the man’s picture on them. She assassinates the man and then spends 15 years in prison where she is repeatedly raped and abused.
So, we’re not talking about a happy movie here by any stretch of the imagination. Only two sorts of things happen in Incendies. There are terrible events that happened in the past that we’re going to see and there are people in the film’s present discovering those terrible events that happened in the past. That’s all we’ve got. This is the second day in a row where I’ve managed to find a movie that has absolutely no element of humor, even in passing or on accident. The difference is that Incendies feels like it’s about something. There’s a bigger story here that needs to be told instead of just the average failings of average people. There’s a terrible grandeur here.
But I’m not going to play around here. Incendies is the sort of film that hurts for a while because of where it goes. There is no punch pulling here. We’re going to go to one of the darkest places possible and we’re going to stare at it for the last few minutes of the film and see who blinks first.
I did. I blinked before the film did. I’m not ashamed of that.
This is why I’m saying that Incendies is a film that I respect but that I don’t want to watch again. Come and See is the king of that designation for me, but Incendies is clearly in that same category comfortably. I’m happy to have seen this. It’s an impressive piece of work. It just also happens to be dark, depressing, and the sort of thing that makes you wonder if human beings should actually be concerned with continuing our own species.
Hard to say it’s not a win, but it’s equally hard to say I enjoyed myself.
Why to watch Incendies: Hell of a story.
Why not to watch: You won’t want to watch it again.