There's a fine line between provocative and manipulative, and director Denis Villeneuve's Oscar nominated Incendies —adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's winning play Incendies ("Scorched" in English) — too often confuses the two. Well-made but far too schematic, it's the kind of award-bait drama that piles on horrific war-torn tragedy after horrific war-torn tragedy, while pushing its stoic protagonist into the realm of tortured saint.
Twentysomething twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are given two letters after the death of their emotionally remote mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal) — one to deliver to the father they were told was dead, the other to deliver to a brother they never knew they had. Assisted by their mother's boss, a kindly notary (Rémy Girard), the two leave Montreal for their mother's Middle Eastern homeland (clearly Lebanon) to uncover the shocking truth of her past. As Jeanne travels around her the country, questioning its locals, she learns of the religious civil war that tore her mother's life apart, and the long buried stories of forbidden love, murder, rape, and imprisonment that followed.
Expertly cutting between past and present, and shifting from character to character, Villeneuve creates an atmosphere of unrelenting dread, threatening nearly every moment with calamity or death (and often both). He expertly tightens the screws, letting gut-wrenching revelations explode like perfectly timed roadside bombs, each one delivering a new and devastating detail of Nawal's past. It's engrossing stuff but, ultimately, more Mexican soap opera than Greek tragedy.
Villeneuve understands the language of cinema and impact of pathos but lacks appreciation for subtext. He relentlessly pushes Incendies' tightly controlled narrative forward, toward contrived and lurid sensationalism, and the raw emotional impact is undeniable. But the effect, particularly the film's final gut-punch of a reveal, is more momentary than lasting. Since we're never asked to directly identify with any of the film's remote and understated characters, all insight and understanding is reduced to generalized observations about the cyclical nature of violence and the multi-generational suffering that accompanies civil and religious war. Instead of emotional profundity we're simply given over-the-top misery and grief.
And, in the end, stinging melodrama is not enough to justify Incendies' increasingly scandalous (and ridiculous) revelations. As compelling a filmmaker Villeneuve is, by shunning illumination or metaphor he treats his audience much as Nawal's tormenters treated her: as a merciless plaything.
Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
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