Telluride 2010: 'Incendies' blends Greek tragedy with modern warfare
The Telluride Film Festival movie “Incendies” opens with the last wishes of a single mother who has instructed her twin children to find a father and brother they never have met. The request is unusual, but what the young woman and man discover as they begin their quest is extraordinary.
Even though Canadian writer-director Denis Villeneuve’s film is mostly set in the modern day and adapted from a recent play by Wajdi Mouawad, it owes its narrative DNA to Sophocles: The film’s title, translated from French, means “Scorched,” and the movie’s psychic and physical fires burn hot and deadly.
“It’s a very modern way to tell Greek tragedy,” Villeneuve says. “A very ancient and mythological story with modern warfare.”
Twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) don’t agree about whether they should honor their mother’s instructions. But Jeanne, a mathematician, looks at the instructions as if they were an equation to be solved.
She leaves Montreal and heads to the Middle East, trying to piece together a complex family history from scratch. Jeanne may have few clues and records to help her, but as the film cuts between the present and the past, the audiences sees the twins’ mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), being transformed and nearly destroyed by the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s.
The ethnic violence between Christians and Palestinians is beyond imagining, and Villeneuve shows in sometimes explicit detail how the seemingly random brutality not only affects Nawal but also plays a critical role in the twins’ birth. Yet the film is ultimately a parable about reconciliation.
“In order to be an adult, you have to be free of your angers,” says Villeneuve, who took several years off in the middle of his filmmaking career (his credits include “Polytechnique,” “Next Floor,” “Maelstrom” and “August 32nd on Earth”) to try to become a better screenwriter.
The film’s bravest performance is delivered by the Belgian actress Azabal, who both witnesses and is subjected to horrific brutality -- and speaks very little throughout the movie. “It was tough all the time for her,” Villeneuve says. “There was never any relief.”
This weekend’s festival is not known as (and is not designed to be) a sales market, as most films showing in the Colorado mountain town already have domestic distributors. But every now and then, a few films come to Telluride looking for a buyer (as was the case with last year’s “The Last Station”), and “Incendies” is among the festival’s new works that does not yet have a theatrical home.
Following its screenings here (after the film played to a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival), “Incendies” may soon find a deserving home.
-- John Horn in Telluride, Colo.
Photo: Lubna Azabal stars in "Incendies." Credit: eOne Films