Dr. Amit Baishya Recommends “Incendies,” a Denis Villeneuve Film

In the latest installment of our “Recommended Reads” series, English Professor Amit Baishya recommends Incendies, a Denis Villeneuve film.

Based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, the Canadian production Incendies (2010, directed by Dennis Villeneuve) is one of the best films I have seen in the last five years. The plot of Incendies moves back and forth between present-day Canada and Lebanon and the period of the civil war in Lebanon (while Canada is mentioned in the film, we don’t find a direct reference to Lebanon. However, we can infer the location from the textual details). With Oedipus the King and Antigone as its obvious subtexts, Incendies hauntingly explores how traumatic events endured during periods of war transmit themselves across generations. Incendies is, to use Marianne Hirsch’s term, a powerful exploration of “post-memory.” Like Oedipus, Incendies opens with a mystery that impels one of its primary protagonists to return to Lebanon and retrace the effaced signs of an unknown past. After the death of Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) in Canada, her children, the twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), learn of her “strange” last request. Nawal wants her body to be buried face down until her children deliver two letters—one to the father of the children and the other to their brother. Both Jeanne and Simon are shocked by these disclosures as they hadn’t heard of their father or their brother before.

Spoiler Alert: The rest of the post contains many plot-sensitive details.

Simon initially ignores this request, attributing it to their mother’s “strange” behavior. He insists on a “normal” burial for their “strange” mother. However, Jeanne, who is a mathematician, decides to honor her mother’s last request and travels to Lebanon to deliver the two letters. Skillfully juxtaposing scenes from the past with those of the cinematic present—a narrative structure that clearly mirrors the use of dramatic irony and the deployment of the plot-devices of discovery and reversal in OedipusIncendies shows how the second generation (Jeanne, and much later, Simon) relives and remembers the mother’s repressed past through acts of repetition and transference.  These acts of remembering through repetition and transference align with the mathematical metaphors in the film. As the twins and the audience realize in the emotionally shattering climax, one plus one does not make two (the father and the brother are separate people); instead, one plus one makes one (the father is the brother). We learn that the lost brother Nihad (Abdelghafour Elaaziz), the Christian Nawal’s son with her slain Palestinian lover, later becomes a brutal torturer named Abou Tarek. Nihad is taken away from his mother when he is an infant, his only marker of identification being the three marks on his heel (another parallel with Oedipus). In the subsequent years, Nawal searches in vain for him as war breaks out in Lebanon. Years later, when Nawal is incarcerated in the notorious Kfar Ryat prison after assassinating a right-wing Christian warlord, she is brutally tortured and raped by Abou Tarek. The adult son and the mother do not recognize each other. Because of the repeated sexual assaults, she becomes pregnant with Jeanne and Simon with whom she resettles in Canada after she is released from prison. Towards the end of the film, we see how Nawal has a chance encounter with Nihad/Abou Tarek (who has also relocated to Canada in the meanwhile) at a local swimming pool. As she is about to step out from the pool, Nawal notices a man with three marks on his heel. When she looks at his face, she realizes that the son she had unsuccessfully looked for all these years and the father of her twins are the same person—a shattering revelation that leads to her death.

The deployment of the Freudian categories of remembering, repetition, and working-through in Incendies is powerfully accentuated by its mise-en-scène and use of sound. Incendies opens with a dark screen which is slowly illuminated to reveal a solitary palm tree in a brightly-light, arid landscape. We hear the sound of insects in the background. As we contemplate the shot of the landscape, the strains of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army” slowly becomes audible. As the song increases in volume, the camera slowly tracks back to reveal that the landscape is framed by a window. The camera then slowly shows us the interior of the grimy room. We begin to perceive that the harsh beauty and indifference of the arid landscape stands in sharp contrast to the scene unfolding inside. A montage of shots shows us the tonsured heads and faces of a group of young boys, some of whom seem to be badly wounded. The boys are surrounded by militiamen who are shaving their heads. In a sequence of three shots, the camera lingers on the boots of the militias and the feet of the children and comes to rest on the tattooed heel of one of the kids as his shorn hair slowly falls on the ground. The next shot is a long take as it zooms in slowly on the young Nihad’s initially confused and then defiant-looking face staring directly at the camera. “You and Whose Army” reaches its crescendo as the sequence ends with an extreme close-up of Nihad’s face.

The opening scene sets the tone for the key stylistic feature of the film—the juxtaposition of long takes of the stunning, yet indifferent, landscape with excruciating scenes of human brutality and the devastation caused by war. Probably the most memorable of these sequences is towards the middle of the film-text when the young Nawal goes alone to the war-torn southern part of Lebanon to search for her lost son. Failing to find any trace of him, she walks alone on a road surrounded by the arid landscape. When she sees a bus approaching her from a distance, she takes off the crucifix that she wears around her neck and covers her head with her scarf to “pass” as a Muslim. As she takes her seat on the bus, she notices a mother with her young daughter in front of her. The three of them exchange smiles. Gazing outside at the unfolding landscape, Nawal slowly dozes off as the bus ambles along slowly. We too are lulled into a comfort-zone by the long takes, the panoramic views of nature and the associated perception of the slow movement of time. However, a quick cut transports us to a scene where Nawal suddenly wakes up as she hears a commotion outside. She notices the terrified passengers peering out of the window as the Muslim driver desperately tries to negotiate with a group of Christian militiamen. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, the leader of the militia shoots the driver in the head. The rest of the group begins to riddle the bus with bullets. This sudden juxtaposition of the slow movement of time earlier with an excruciating scene of cold and calculated brutality makes us squirm at the edge of our seats.  Only Nawal, the mother-daughter pair and an anonymous woman survive the initial attack. As the terrified Nawal and the mother-daughter pair attempt to get their bearings amidst the pile of bloody corpses, we hear the noises of the clanging of canisters and of men climbing up to the roof of the bus. To their growing horror, the trio notices the men empty petrol from the canisters into the bus from the hatch above. As they stumble towards the door, Nawal takes out her crucifix and proclaims loudly that she is Christian. As the militias come to take her outside, she looks at the terrified face of the whimpering mother. In a split second, she grabs the hand of the child and declares that she is her daughter. The child cries out desperately for her mother as she is led away with Nawal. The background music begins at the point when the camera focuses on the mother’s distraught face.  The music increases in intensity drowning the child’s cries and the fading sounds of the bullets that begin to rain on the mother’s body in the background. The bus also rises up in flames.

Then begins a harrowing nine-shot sequence, the first being a shallow focus shot that shows the child being forcibly taken out of Nawal’s arms. The child’s screams are inaudible as the background music dominates the scene. Then we notice two deep focus shots. In the first one, the child begins to run towards the burning bus. In the second, we are distanced further from the scene as one of the militias slowly raises his gun and shoots the child in the back. The echo of the bullet cuts a swathe through the ominous sounding background music and lingers in our memory as we see the child keeling over. In the next shot, the ambient sounds of Nawal slumping to the ground and the burning bus share the acoustic space with the background music. It is as if up to this point, we, like the terrified Nawal, were blocking out the screams of the child and the sound of the bullets and the burning bus. The next two shots show us the stunned face of a kneeling and immobile Nawal on the foreground towards the right of the frame with the burning bus in the background.  Nawal’s helplessness and shock is accentuated when we see her as a mere dot in the next shot which is dominated by the burning bus and the arid and rocky landscape. Once again, the indifference of nature is contrasted with a gut-wrenching display of human cruelty. In the final two shots of this sequence, we see the remains of the burnt bus and a close-up of Nawal’s devastated face. Obviously, a lot of time has elapsed since the massacre. Nawal, however, still remains frozen and immobile as we hear the wind howling in the background.

The howling wind serves as a bridge for the next shot as the camera focuses on Nawal’s crucifix. The sound of the wind is slowly drowned by a segment from “You and Whose Army” as we realize our mistake in perception. The person wearing the crucifix is not Nawal, but Jeanne, who is wearing her mother’s “gift” as she travels by bus through Lebanon. As she repeats Nawal’s journey, the “gift” of the crucifix plays an important role in the act of narrative transference. It represents Jeanne’s mode of keeping her mother’s memory alive in the narrative present. It also shows how the daughter’s identity is not autonomous and separate, but is connected in complex and intricate ways with that of her mother. Whenever I teach this movie, my students immediately notice the deceptive similarities between the mother and the daughter—from the clothes, the gait, and even, as Jackson Eflin, my very bright undergraduate student and astute observer of cinema pointed out in class, the hair. These visual similarities are meant to emphasize how the daughter repeats and begins to slowly piece together her mother’s unknown story. After all, besides the mother’s trauma, Incendies is also about the daughter’s search for a past she never knew. Again, the mise-en-scène provides us with the interpretive clues on the congruities instituted in the narrative between the mother and the daughter. Earlier in the movie, there is a close-up of Jeanne’s face as she gazes intensely at the swimming pool (there is a lot of water-imagery in this movie which I cannot discuss in this short space). She remembers that something happened there although she can’t quite put her finger on it. The scene of recognition is then played out from Jeanne’s perspective as she emerges from the water and looks around for her mother. As she turns her head, she sees her mother sitting immobile in one of the chairs near the pool. In the same scene, Nihad/Abou Tarek and his friends are talking in the background on the right, although we only realize this in retrospect. Nawal’s bequest and Jeanne’s (and later, Simon’s) search comes full circle towards the end when the swimming pool sequence is again replayed from Nawal’s perspective. Nawal emerges from the pool, stops expectantly for a while when she sees Nihad/Abou Tarek’s tattooed heel, and then freezes in horror when she realizes that one plus one sometimes makes one.

The closing sequences of Incendies also make it linger for long in our memories. After the shattering revelation, Jeanne and Simon come back to Canada from Lebanon and deliver the two letters to Nihad/Abou Tarek. They don’t talk to him, but hold him in their gaze for a while before they leave. The movie ends on a poignant note as Nihad first opens the letter for the “father” inside his apartment. Nawal’s “ghostly” voice tells him that she has finally gone beyond hatred and embraced their two “beautiful” children.  When he reads the letter addressed to the “son,” he is devastated when he hears Nawal’s voice telling him how he was conceived in love and how she yearned to hold him close all these years. We move on to a scene in the notary’s office with the twins finally opening a third letter addressed to both of them. Nawal tells them how she is finally able to hold them close and break the repetitive cycle of anger and hatred. The cinematic “working-through” of the repressed trauma, thus, ends with a form of cathartic redemption.

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