Sunday, February 6, 2011
In the first scene of Incendies, a Canadian drama (based on a play by Wadji Mouwad and directed by Denis Villeneuve) that was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, a pair of fraternal twins, Jeanne and Simon, sit across from a lawyer and listen to the terms of their mother's will. Nawal Marwan, speaking from the grave, gives Jeanne the goal of looking for her father, who she had been told was dead, and gives Simon the goal of looking for his brother, who he didn't even know existed. A fine way to introduce the mysteries of the story, but there's one problem; Jeanne and Simon, instead of grieving, are sulking. Not only are they annoyed with their mother's request, but they approach her death with a self-indulgent whininess that's immediately off-putting. And to make matters worse, they speak French with a (very strong, in Simon's case) Quebequois accent. Now I don't want to baselessly insult 8 million lovely people, and I will admit that my own French is far from perfect, but I must say--and there's no easier way to put this--that French-Canadian is to French what Sarah Palin's English is to actual English. Do these people have any idea how hard it is to listen to impassioned angst delivered with that kind of nasally intonation without cracking up?
Now some of this may be intentional (the twins' initial self centeredness, not the ridiculous accent), but I was immediately worried that the movie would be equally caught up in its sorrows. The film keeps repeating shots of Narwal and Jeanne diving into swimming pools; it's a page straight from Kieslowski's playbook, and he rightly showed in Three Colors: Blue that swimming pools and tears make a great combo, but the tragedy in that movie felt natural and essential. I wasn't always sure if the same could be said for Incendies. Throughout the film I had to ask myself, "is this movie deserving of its own sadness"?
In some ways it isn't. Incendies boasts a tear jerker of an ending that's as implausible as it is emotionally manipulative. The relentlessly bleak and slightly maligned Biutiful was much more honest in its approach towards tragedy and uplift, even if it was less careful in hiding its flaws. But in some sense, I felt that Incendies, through shear force and willful execution, found a way to merit all of its dreariness and grand statements about hope and love. As Jeanne goes in search of her mother's past somewhere in the middle east, the movie keeps giving us flashbacks of a young Marwan dealing with her own struggles; the death of her lover, her search for her orphaned child, war between Christians and Muslims ravaging the country, and much worse. As those struggles accumulate and as Jeanne begins to uncover more of her mother's history, the past becomes so momentous and meaningful that it completely redefines the way Jeanne and Simon see their own lives. Their own troubles eventually become insignificant compared to the sacrifices their mother undertook for them.
Incendies may pile on too much in the end, but the search to get there is engrossing. The scope of the cross generational story broaches on the epic, and the apolitical message, that love can be just as tenacious and lasting as hatred, is hardly objectionable. If it's a little frustrating that this movie, which bears little of the subtlety of the best stuff from France this year, has a place on the foreign film shortlist while the thematically similar Of Men and Gods does not, I found it hard to begrudge it its success. Quebequois accents be damned, this movie deserves--if not all--at least some of the tears it's sure to elicit from academy voters.