10 years on, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies still haunts me

This searing drama forced me to confront the uncomfortable reality of my relatively privileged upbringing in the Middle East.


Lucas Oakeley


Be 15. Be depressed. Be hunched over the family computer, stunned into silence as you try to digest what you’ve just spent the last two hours watching. Do all that and you’ll have a pretty faithful reenactment of the first time I watched Denis Villenueve’s Incendies. A decade on, Denis Villenueve’s mysterious wartime drama continues to haunt me.

The fact that this film (whose title roughly translates as “scorched”) is hard to forget won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Villeneuve’s work. Yet while he has recently earned a seat at the industry’s top table, helming Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, back in 2010 he was still building his reputation through arthouse films like Maelström and the ultraviolent Polytechnique.

Simply put, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But from the moment Radiohead’s ‘You and Whose Army?’ trills over the opening sequence of a young boy having his head shaved – shooting daggers through the screen into my tender teenage soul – I was hooked.

Based on a play by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies follows a pair of Canadian twins, Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), who make a life-altering discovery following the death of their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). Told through a series of flashbacks, Nawal’s journey through a country torn apart by a bloody and violent civil war is interposed with that of her children as they try to piece together the fragments of their mother’s life while tracking down a brother they never knew and a father they had believed to be dead.

These multiple strands of time are neatly interwoven across the contrasting landscapes of suburban Canada and an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Although Villenueve has described his film as a “total fiction” with no historical grounding, the violence that erupts around Nawal so closely mirrors the Lebanese conflict from 1975 to 1990 that it’s impossible not to draw comparisons.

One scene involving a massacre on a bus stands out as particularly harrowing – a devastating echo to a real-life event that involved the murder of numerous Palestinian refugees in the Ain el-Rammaneh district of east Beirut in 1975. The remnants of this bus were displayed in 2011 at the Umam Documentation and Research Center in Beirut as a reminder of the nation’s collective trauma. It was seeing these very real, very tragic events – presented through Villenueve’s lens of heightened hyperreality – that opened my eyes to the injustice surrounding me, and my ears to the anticipatory murmurs of an Arab Spring poised to erupt.

I was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates and first watched Incendies while I was still living there. The Middle East was, and remains to this day, a region divided by in-fighting and political unrest. As a teenager, I knew that there was violence surrounding me, wars and disputes that I would gloss over in the Gulf News en route to the culture section, but I never appreciated the extent or proximity of the destruction.

The way that Incendies’ plot unfolds, and the way in which the twins are positioned as foreign outsiders, forced to come face-to-face with Arab culture, mirrored my own uncomfortable re-assessment of the world I lived in. The brutal and arid landscape that Villenueve depicted bore no similarities to the Disneyfied bubble of the UAE that I was familiar with; it was dangerous, angry, bitterly divided. And just as Jeanne and Simon are made to come to terms with their mother’s painful past, I was forced to face up to the privilege of my ignorance. As an expat, I was afforded the luxury of living in the Mashriq without ever having to consider the politics of the region, free to simply fuck off somewhere else if things ever became too volatile.

I still feel a sense of shame returning to Incendies all these years later. Like pressing a bruise, there’s a delicious agony that comes with putting yourself through something you know is only going to cause you pain.

Watching the film today, I get the sense that I’m bearing witness to something raw and unvarnished – a director teetering towards greatness yet never quite grasping it with both his hands. Villeneuve doesn’t pull his punches and while not every jab hits precisely, and some moments do cross the picket line from Greek tragedy to Victorian melodrama, there’s enough haymakers scattered throughout to make it a film worth revisiting.

Incendies lays the groundwork for Villeneuve’s mainstream success, setting up the familiar skittles of anguish, grief and human suffering that he has knocked down over and over again. But none of his subsequent efforts have grabbed me by the throat and left me gasping for breath in quite the same way that Incendies did all those years ago. I’m not sure that another film ever will.

Published 9 Sep 2020

Tags: Denis Villeneuve Incendies

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