By Brian Lafferty
April 28, 2011 (San Diego) – For a movie nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Oscars, Incendies is artistically and technically incompetent. Rarely have I sat through a movie feeling so bewildered and frustrated. The story is needlessly complicated but that’s not the real problem. It’s the ineptness of the screenwriter, casting director, and the cinematographer in telling this story.
Incendies tells of a daughter’s search for her recently deceased mother’s history. Her mother’s will stipulates that she and her brother deliver two envelopes, one for their believed to be dead father and one for a brother they never heard of. Along the way she and her brother learn a lot about their mother and, at the end, a shocking truth. The majority of the film is told in flashbacks, which reveal their late mother’s trials and tribulations in the Middle East, including a brutal stint in prison.
One profession in film that can be easily overlooked is the casting director. Casting a movie is important. In the case of Incendies, it is also one of its downfalls. I tend to be very good with faces. I almost never have trouble remembering which character is which in a movie.
I believe the casting director and director wanted two actresses who would credibly resemble a mother and daughter. It works, but not in the way the filmmakers intended and certainly not the way they desired. The actresses look so much alike, I had difficulty telling whether I was seeing the daughter or the mother at a young age. It often took me two minutes into each scene to figure it out but by then, it was too late.
The cinematographer’s poor shooting choices don’t help. The flashbacks are shot with exactly the same lighting scheme and color palette as the present. Not only did I have a hard time figuring out whether it was the mother or the daughter I was watching but I often had no idea whether it was in the past or present for most of the time.
Director Denis Villeneuve, who also wrote the script, provides no historical context. It is not explicitly stated when the flashbacks take place or what is going on in the Middle East. It doesn’t even state what country the events are set in. This renders the daughter’s and mother’s trek almost insignificant.
By some miracle, I wasn’t bored by Incendies. During the few times the plot is somewhat comprehensible, the movie displays great power, particularly during the prison scenes. The performances are earnest and captivating; somehow they don’t get lost in the murky plot.
I don’t oppose complex stories or nonlinear plots. Nor do I need heaps of exposition. I have to have coherency. I should not have to look up a movie on Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia, or the press notes to figure out what a movie is about.
Incendies opens Friday at the Landmark La Jolla Village Cinemas.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director and screenwriter: Denis Villeneuve. Cinematographer: André Turpin. Original music: Grégoire Hetzel. Cast: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, and Rémy Girard. In French, Arabic, and English with English subtitles. Rated R.