“Up in Smoke”: Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

The fact that this French Canadian Oscar-bait was adapted from a play makes perfect sense: Not that it feels claustrophobic or “stage-bound,” thus necessitating “opening up.” Rather, each and every major “revelation” (and by the film’s third act they’re whizzing past you fast and furiously), after being unsubtly telegraphed several minutes earlier, is offered up on a veritable silver platter, usually via voice-over narration. Writer/director Villeneuve must not have an iota of confidence in the attention-span or information-processing skills of his international audience, since he evidently feels the need to take them by the hand and guide them through this would-be labyrinth of international, inter-generational and interfaith (did I forget internecine…?) strife. Ironically, this mirrors the treatment its protagonists–Franco-Arabic twins (their country of origin left willfully vague, thus upping the film’s “universal” ante) forced against their better judgment to return from whence they came in order to fulfill their deceased mother’s last will and testament–undergo once they reach their final destination(s).

(And let’s not dwell on the film’s misguided induction of “pure mathematical” metaphor to illustrate the theorem that life is difficult and its problems perhaps insoluble, or its bizarre, near-fetishistic valorization of the notary as benevolent mediator extraordinaire…)

Initially, Incendies‘ spatiotemporal jumble presents a challenge to the viewer: “Where and when are we?” becomes the operative question. And it appears Villeneuve is searching for more heft and nuance in his presentation of Christian-Muslim fractiousness than Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (2010), though ultimately the two films wind up being thematically (and didactically) identical in their (frustratingly pat) pleas for tolerance and mutual understanding.

Whereas Beauvois favors restraint–static compositions or else slow, incremental pans–Villeneuve indulges in flamboyance–slo-mo tableaux set to whiny Radiohead numbers and patently obvious symbolic moments (like the one, cribbing openly from The Graduate [1967], that has the twins seeking some submarine solace). The sole admittedly effective, indeed harrowing, sequence (not coincidentally, it provides the poster art seen above) takes place aboard a bus packed with religious refugees, waylaid in the middle of nowhere by a masked band of Christian fundamentalists. The ensuing violence is brutal and unflinching, the moral consequences terribly apt (i.e., no good deed…).

If only the rest of the film had the courage to maintain that rigorous and unsentimental edge, tracing it out to its logical conclusions, wherever that might lead. Instead, viewers wind up with preposterous “shock and awe” plot twists dumped in their laps every five minutes, ending on a lachrymose appeal to “break the chain of anger” (without a thought, obviously, for how such an enormous bait-and-switch might just as easily yank the viewer’s chain).

Because I have yet to witness In a Better World–the Danish film that trumped this odds-on favorite to win the Best Foreign Film category–I cannot speak as to the balance of mawkish power (one day, perhaps, I shall subject myself), therefore, in keeping with Wittgenstein’s “purely mathematical” Tractatus, I must pass over the matter in silence. Suffice it to say that, since Suzanne Bier beat out Villeneuve, it stands to reason her film engages in far higher levels of AMPAS-directed posterior analytics.

For my money, the dark horse (and darkly hilarious) Dogtooth by all rights should have triumphed. Ah, but, you know, In a Better World it would have…

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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One Response to “Up in Smoke”: Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

  1. Pingback: Xavier bier | Superstartrave

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