Incendies — Trauma and Survival Against the Odds in Villeneuve’s Tale of Heritage

Graphics and design by Betty Woodhouse (IG:

Over the course of the past decade, Hollywood has clawed Denis Villeneuve out his darkened corner and widened his squint into a broad-eyed visionary — a filmmaker who now pulls off undeniably ambitious projects with jealousy-inducing ease. In anticipation for his grand adaptation of Dune (set for release later in 2020), we travel back to 2010, to a film that cemented Villeneuve as one of the decade’s most valuable players. Incendies is an intricate and gut-churning exploration of lost innocence, survival against the odds, and heritage.

Incendies traces the harrowing life of a dying middle-eastern woman, Nawal, who leaves her twin children two letters to be read after her passing — her daughter is asked to deliver the first letter to their unknown father, while the son is tasked with passing his to the brother they never knew they had. The narrative switches back and forth between Nawal’s tortured youth in a war torn landscape and her children’s present-day drive to discover the secrets of their own existence.

In contrast to Villeneuve’s usual murky colour palette, the awe-inspiring cinematography settles on a decidedly blinding scheme. It very nearly tears Villeneuve’s trademark darkness from under him; the broad scenery and stark daylight we’re subjected to is often all the exposition we need to understand the distressing circumstances that Nawal is subjected to throughout the film. Burning buses and destroyed orphanages sit steadfast in the foreground of barren mountaintops and impoverished villages, but it’s in Villeneuve’s direction that we get to the soul of Nawal’s torment. The lingering expressions of his principal characters evidence that, in Villeneuve’s world, real evil puffs its chest in glaring daylight — it doesn’t cower in the shadows.

The opening scene of Incendies plays out like a music video. Prolonged, slow shots of children somewhere in the middle-east having their heads shaved for them while Radiohead’s ‘You and Whose Army?’ simmers over the heartbreaking glare of a boy who will soon become instrumental in Nawal’s tragic fable. We feel the importance and emotional impact of the sequence and you can’t help but recall the boy’s dead eyes as the film reaches its jaw-dropping revelation. Villeneuve, in this opening sequence alone, convinces his audience of the upsetting nature of lost innocence, and how it can breed evil at the pull of a trigger.

A masterclass in filmmaking ensues over the next two hours or so. Character development sits atop a mountain of achievements the film accumulates — Nawal’s dispondance in the present timeline we see drives her son, Simon, to short-tempered anger and without stating it, we understand that their relationship has never been one of understanding. Meanwhile her daughter Jeanne’s search for answers is perceived as naivety by the frustrated Simon, but we are gripped by her passion for the chase. It’s a thirst we share with her as what begins as a simple premise soon turns into a complex web of familial relationships and coincidence that concludes in one of the most shocking climaxes in recent cinematic memory.

Piled high in understated shocks, Incendies achieves a vice-like hold over its viewer. Your desperation to understand the truth of Nawal’s heroic rise from the dirt conflicting with a desire to avert your eyes. Villeneuve’s harrowing addition to an already distressing catalogue of his films is one of essential viewing.

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Words by Connor Cudmore

Graphics and Design by Betty Woodhouse

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