Incendies is a 2010 Canadian war thriller film directed by Denis Villeneuve, who co-wrote the screenplay with Valerie Beaugrand-Champagne. Adapted from Wajdi Mouawads play of the same name, Incendies stars Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, and Remy Girard.
The story concerns Canadian twins who travel to their mothers native country in the Middle East to uncover her hidden past amidst a bloody civil war. While the country is unnamed, the events in the film are heavily influenced by the Lebanese Civil War and particularly the story of prisoner Souha Bechara. The film was shot mainly in Montreal, with a few days spent in Jordan.
It premiered at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals in September 2010 and was released in Quebec on 17 September 2010. It met with critical acclaim in Canada and abroad and won numerous awards.
In 2011, it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Incendies also won eight Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture.
Jeanne Marwan, a graduate student in mathematics, explains the Collatz conjecture to a class of undergraduates, where every positive integer leads to a sequence that ultimately ends in the number two reducing to the number one.
Following the death of Jeannes mother Nawal, an Arab immigrant in Canada, Jeanne and her twin brother Simon meet with French Canadian notary Jean Lebel, their mother’s employer and family friend. Nawals will makes reference to not keeping a promise, denying her a proper gravestone and casket, unless Jeanne and Simon track down their mysterious brother, whose existence they were previously unaware of, and their father, whom they believed was dead. Jeanne accepts; Simon, on the other hand, seemingly having had a more difficult relationship with Nawal and her apparently unusual personality, is reluctant to join Jeanne on this pursuit.
A series of flashbacks reveal Nawal came from a Christian Arab family in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, and that she fell in love with a refugee named Wahab, resulting in her pregnancy. Her family murders her lover and nearly shoots her as an honour killing, but her grandmother spares her, making her promise to leave the village after the birth of her baby and start a new life in the fictional city of Daresh. The grandmother tattoos the back of the babys heel and sends him to an orphanage.
While Nawal is at university in Daresh, a civil war and war crimes break out with Nawal opposing the war on human rights grounds. Her sons orphanage in Kfar Khout is destroyed by a Muslim militant, Chamseddine, who converts him into an Islamic child soldier. After barely escaping the massacre of a bus full of Muslim refugees by Christian Nationalists, Nawal narrowly manages to join the Muslim fighters, and eventually shoots a nationalist leader. She is imprisoned in Kfar Ryat and raped by torturer Abou Tareq, consequently giving birth to the twins.
After travelling to her mothers native country, Jeanne gradually uncovers this past, and persuades Simon to join her. With help from Lebel, they learn their brothers name is Nihad of May and track down Chamseddine. Simon meets with him personally, and he reveals the war-mad Nihad was captured by the nationalists, turned by them, trained as a torturer, and then sent to Kfar Ryat, where he took the name Abou Tareq, making him both the twins half-brother and father; as such, the two people they were seeking reduce to one. Nihad had immigrated to Canada and Nawal only learned his true identity after recognizing the tattoo on the back of his heel at a Canadian swimming pool. The shock of learning the truth caused Nawal to suffer a stroke which led to her decline and untimely death at age sixty.
The twins find Nihad in Canada and deliver Nawals letters to him without speaking to him. He opens both of them; the first letter addresses him as the twins father, and is filled with contempt, as Nihad is written to by Nawal as her rapist. The second letter addresses him as the twins brother, and is instead written with caring words, saying that he, as Nawals son, is deserving of love.
Nawal gets her gravestone in the aftermath of the letters being sent, which Nihad visits.
2.1. Production Development
Parts of the story were based on the life of Souha Bechara. The story is based on events that happened during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 to 1990, but the filmmakers attempted to make the location of the plot ambiguous.
Director Denis Villeneuve first saw Wajdi Mouawads play Incendies at Theatre de QuatSous in Montreal in 2004, commenting "I had this strong intuition that I was in front of a masterpiece". Villeneuve acknowledged unfamiliarity with Arab culture, but was drawn to Incendies as "a modern story with a sort of Greek tragedy element". In adapting the screenplay, Villeneuve, while keeping the story structure and characters, replaced "all" the dialogue, even envisioning a silent film, abandoning the idea due to expense. He showed Mouawad some completed scenes to convince the initially reluctant playwright to grant permission for the film. Villeneuve spent five years working on the screenplay, in between directing two films. Mouawad later praised the film as "brilliantly elegant" and gave Villeneuve full credit. The project had a budget of $6.5 million, and received funding from Telefilm Canada.
2.2. Production Casting
For the part of Nawal, Villeneuve said he conducted an extensive search for actresses across Canada. He considered casting the main character to be the most challenging, and at one point contemplated using two or three actresses to play the character, since the story spans four decades. He finally met Moroccan Belgian actress Lubna Azabal in Paris, intrigued by her "expressive and eloquent" face in Paradise Now 2005. Although she was 30, Villeneuve thought she appeared 18 and could play the part throughout the entire film, using makeup.
Villeneuve selected Canadian actress Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin to play Jeanne, saying the role required listening skills and Desormeaux-Poulin is "a very generous actress". Before Incendies, Desormeaux-Poulin was mainly known for "light fare". Montreal actor Allen Altman, who played a notary, worked with a dialect coach for hours to develop a blend of the French and Arab accents before auditioning. While shooting in Jordan, to research his role, actor Maxim Gaudette toured a Palestinian refugee camp near Amman.
2.3. Production Filming
The film was shot in Montreal and Jordan. The film took 40 days to shoot, of which 15 were spent in Jordan, with Villeneuve aiming to film no scene without being sure it would not be cut.
For the scenes filmed in Jordan, Villeneuve used a Lebanese and Iraqi crew, though he feared the war scenes would be too reminiscent of bad experiences for them. However, he said the Arab crew members felt "It’s important that those sorts of stories are on the screen". Some of the filming in Jordan took place in the capital of Amman. To recreate Beirut, art director Andre-Line Beauparlant built up rock and debris on a street in Amman.
Incendies was officially selected to play in the 2010 Venice Film Festival, 2010 Telluride Film Festival, 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, 2011 Sundance Film Festival and 2011 New Directors/New Films Festival. The film opened in Toronto and Vancouver in January 2011.
In the United States, the film was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. When the film was screened in Beirut in March 2011, Villeneuve claimed "a lot of people said to me that we should show this film to their children, to show them what they had been through".
4.1. Reception Box office
In Canada, the film passed the $1 million mark at the box office by October 2010. By the end of April 2011, the film grossed $4.7 million. In Quebec theatres alone, Incendies made $3 million. It was considered a success in the country.
According to Box Office Mojo, the film completed its theatrical run on September 29, 2011 after making $2.071.334 in the U.S. According to The Numbers, the film grossed $6.857.096 in North America and $9.181.247 in other territories for a worldwide total of $16.038.343.
4.2. Reception Critical response
Incendies received highly positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reports 93% positive reviews based on 121 reviews, with an average rating of 7.92/10. The sites critics consensus reads, "Its messy, overlong, and a touch melodramatic, but those flaws pale before Incendies impressive acting and devastating emotional impact." On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 80 out 100 based on 42 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
The film enjoyed a positive reception in its country and province. Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal gave it 3.5 stars out of four and wrote, "Villeneuve has done his best work yet here". The Montreal Gazette s Brendan Kelly gave the film five stars and called it a "masterwork". Marc Cassivi of La Presse claimed the film transcended the play. Peter Howell, writing for The Toronto Star, gave the film four stars, called it "a commanding film of multiple revelations", and the best of 2010, and praised Lubna Azabal as "first amongst equals". However, Martin Morrow of CBC News was unimpressed, saying, "Villeneuve’s screen adaptation strips away all this finely textured flesh and leaves only the bare bones". University of Berlin film scholar Claudia Kotte wrote the film, along with Monsieur Lazhar 2011 and War Witch 2012, represent a break in the Cinema of Quebec from focus on local history to global concerns, with Incendies adding Oedipal themes. Authors Gada Mahrouse, Chantal Maille and Daniel Salee wrote McCraw and Derys films, Incendies, Monsieur Lazhar and InchAllah, depict Quebec as part of the global village and as accepting minorities, particularly Middle Easterners or "Muslim Others".
Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars, saying "it wants to be much more than a thriller and succeeds in demonstrating how senseless and futile it is to hate others because of their religion", and Azabal "is never less than compelling". He later selected the film as his favourite to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, though it lost to In a Better World from Denmark. Leonard Maltin also gave the film three and a half stars, referring to it as "tough, spellbinding". Ty Burr, writing for The Boston Globe, gave the film three and a half stars, praising a bus scene as harrowing but saying the climax is "a plot twist that feels like one coincidence too far", that "leaves the audience doing math on their fingers rather than reeling in shock". Incendies was named by Stephen Holden of The New York Times as one of the 10 best films of 2011. Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times called it Villeneuve’s "best-realized work yet". A number of reviews complimented use of the song "You and Whose Army?" by Radiohead. Criticisms have included charges of melodrama and orientalism.
4.3. Reception Accolades
On 22 September 2010, Incendies was chosen to represent Canada at the 83rd Academy Awards in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. It made the shortlist on 19 January 2011, one of nine films and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film on 25 January 2011.
It won eight awards at the 31st Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Actress for Azabal and Best Director for Villeneuve. Along with Incendies, Villeneuve won the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award in 2009 for the film Polytechnique, the first Canadian filmmaker to win it twice in a row. Incendies also won the Prix Jutra for Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actress Azabal, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes and Sound.