Incendies

Friday, January 13, 2012 12:34:39 PM
famiily drama, film making, canadian film, Elem Klimov, war. Lebanon, Denis villeneuve, Come and See, cliches, war film, film, Incendies
I really wanted to like this, as its the kind of subject (history, politics) that is to my taste, but I did not like this one bit.
Incendies is a kind of road movie partly told in the present partly in flashback. A mother’s last wishes send twins Jeanne and Simon on a journey to an unspecified country in the Middle East- but surely it’s Lebanon – in search of their father and brother. Adapted by film maker Denis Villeneuve from Wajdi Mouawad’s acclaimed play.
The problem with this film is that adapting a stage play for film is a very difficult process that is hard to do well, and it really shows here. What could be a wonderfully intense and claustrophobic story when seen on-stage with live actors, is just relentlessly head-against-the-wall depressing on screen. The characters are so woeful and undergoing such constant misery that one just waits for the next hideous thing to happen. By the revelation of the final horror, we expect it and are unmoved.
Screen opens out the story, it sacrifices the electric emotion and momentum of live performance but broadens out the story and the perspective. Except that this film does not do that. Film also gives one time and space to ask questions about what one sees, whereas onstage we are caught up the immediacy of the drama and we accept unequivocally what we see. Film, with its pans and crane shots, establishing shots etc., give us much more space for reflection. And that does not work for this film, as the story is not filled out with more life.
Shakespeare understood that to make a great tragedy there needs to be some moments of lightness, that’s why he included the comic scenes in his plays. Villeneuve totally misses out on showing us the actual relationship between mother and children, which could have provided those moments. Any glimpse of “normal” life in present day “Lebanon” is also missing. As the horror piled upon the horror, I kept thinking “she must have really hated her children to knowingly put them through that” which is an interesting take on the story – but I got the sense that it wasn’t supposed to be about that.
Denis Villeneuve makes the most depressing movies imaginable (Maelstrom, about a hit and run killer, and Polytechnique about a real life mass murder). They are very worthy, but they are depressing. He does not seem not realise that one can take a harrowing and serious subject and do two seemingly contradictory things: hold your audience close to the chest of the film and make them really live the experiences of the characters, and at the same time, open it out to make it go beyond the personal catharsis and make us understand something deeper about humanity. Incendies does not do that, really. We can’t even really reach the moment of empathy or catharsis because we are too interested in the puzzle yet we know, from the relentless mournfulness of the characters that whatever happens won’t be good.
A wonderful example of a film that does exactly that – makes us live the harrowing reality of the characters experiences and then take us far beyond it – is the incredible Come and See by Elem Klimov (1985) a film made near the end of the Soviet period set in WW2 Belorussia. According to the director: “I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it. I told this to my screenplay coauthor, the writer Ales Adamovich. But he replied: “Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.” ”
Contrary to Klimov’s expectations the film was extremely successful and remains so today.I saw it in the cinema at the 2001 Vancouver Film Festival, a special retrospective presentation, and it has haunted me ever since. It’s the best war movie ever made – maybe alongside Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigenes.
Come and See Trailer: http://youtu.be/1HkMK3Pk61A
©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved

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