The story begins with the opening of their mother’s will. Or does it? The Academy Award nominated Incendies is a mystery where it isn’t clear if it should be solved. Twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are brought into Jean Lebel’s office (Rémy Girard). He is a Notary who hired their mother as his secretary. He cared for her quite a deal and is willing to obey her final wishes.
The will asks for Jeanne to search for their father and give him a letter. Simon must deliver a letter to their brother. Neither of them knew their father was still alive or they even had a brother. Once these tasks are completed there is a final letter for them and then the mother will finally be able to have a gravestone.
Simon wants no part of this, but Jeanne decides to start the quest. She travels from her home in Canada to her mother’s roots in the Middle East finding any clue she can about where her father could be.
There are plenty of films of older children who discover the past of their parents. Typically the discoveries help them respect the people who raised them. This is not the case with Incendies. At the beginning of the search there is plenty of people looking shady and unwilling to answer questions.
Aside from the eerie beginning, this part of the film feels standard. Yet once the answers start arriving, the film changes. Suddenly everyone started sitting up in their seats in my theatre because the results are shocking.
Writer/director Denis Villeneuve tells the story by jumping around in time to show Jeanne’s journey but also the story of their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). Nawal’s portions are often very difficult to watch as her land is plagued by war, hatred and revenge. There can be understanding on why some of this happened, but there isn’t acceptance right away.
There are distinct ebbs and flows with the film. Sometimes Villeneuve’s use of silence doesn’t always pay off, but when it does it’s powerful. So much weight is on the leading actresses Désormeaux-Poulin and Azabal to add the emotional elements to the story. They achieve with incredible performances that stray away from the simplistic reactions, but are able to say so much about their characters with just a single look.
By focusing on the story of this family, it is able to do much more about the greater themes. Unlike the film that beat this for the Oscar, Incendies is strong enough on the surface that it’s able to work on many levels.