Incendies directed by Denis Villeneuve

[This piece originally appeared in Five Dials Number 15 and is reproduced with their kind permission.]

In Sophocles’ tragedy, the incestuous Oedipus only gains wisdom after experiencing darkness by piercing his own eyes. For the Greek playwright, wisdom, redemption and tragedy can never be fully grasped without a moment like this of utter darkness.

In Denis Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed film Incendies, adapted from a play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad, the director takes the liberty of presenting his audience with a story filled with references to Sophocles’ Greek tragedy but devoid of the necessary invested darkness.

In an interview, Villeneuve declared that before making the film he had no idea about the Arab world; one might suspect that even after it was completed he still did not.

To use a religious image: for an Arabic audience, Incendies speaks in many tongues. Literally.

The various Arabic dialects in the film threw me into utter confusion as to the location of the story. Villeneuve may have learned a few things in his recent travels in the Middle East, but one thing he clearly missed is that the Arab world is not a homogenous place, linguistically or culturally. In Villeneuve’s film, the same character might jump from using a Lebanese dialect to a Jordanian or Moroccan one in the very same sentence.

Of course, this instantaneous hybridism of language could well be justified as a universal development as old as history itself. One might even argue that language and its evolution depend on the creation of such hybrid forms. This conflation of languages, this universalism – accidental or forced – could perhaps be explained by the playwright and the filmmaker as artistic liberty and, furthermore, tied to freedom of expression, or perhaps a post-nationalist act aiming to liberate the people from attachment to regional specificities and petty patriotisms. But then, I wonder, would Villeneuve accept such drastic indulgences – transcending histories and time, and the textured slow growth, birth and death of a dialect or a language – if applied to his own mother tongue?

It is somewhat surprising that the liberty to ignore the unique characteristics of regional languages is taken by a man who lives in a province that celebrates the importance of its own distinct language and dialect. Would Léolo or Les Invasions barbares have been as powerful if they had been written in a mish-mash of Patois, Creole and Parisian French, with a jolt of Tunisian dialect thrown into the same sentence? These films would then certainly have been condemned by L’Académie française, or at least Bill 101, or simply dismissed as experimental comedies. It is unlikely that they would have been celebrated, as Villeneuve’s Incendies has been, for evoking true, epic, grand tragedy. Who do we write, paint or create for? is the question. Is it still permissible in this time and age to portray the story of the other without fully allowing the other a clear language of his or her own? Must we show them their own story in a newly constructed, transformed language that they, themselves, cannot even comprehend?

The story at the core of Incendies is based on the life of Soha Bechara, a very well known figure in Lebanon. Bechara, a resistance fighter, stabbed the commander of the South Lebanon Army, after befriending and giving aerobics lessons to the commander’s wife. La femme qui chante, as she is called in Incendies, barely sings in the film, nor goes on to have a singing career after her liberation from the notorious Khiam Detention Centre in south Lebanon. In the film, she manages to conceal her past (something the audience must find hard to believe for a figure as famous as Soha Bechara) and is a mystery to her own twin children. These children, after following the instructions of their mother’s will – which is more of a riddle, to give it a Hellenic symbol – embark upon an adventure through the many hills and many battles of what one might assume is the Lebanese Civil War, to finally discover that they are the product of a violent relationship between their mother and her torturer, who turns out to be her lost, firstborn son, Nihad of May.

Watching the film, one wonders why the twins, conceived through their brother’s rape of their mother, have no resemblance at all to either their Arab mother or father. On screen, the twins appear to be two pure laine Québecois – as indeed they are. To again give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt, there is always the possibility that Villeneuve was furthering his attempts at hybridization, progessing onwards to a complete, miraculous transformation. This time, however, the fusion is not related to language but is rather an instant, mythical metamorphosis of the genes themselves, brought about by mere exposure to another culture.

The flaws of Incendies derive not from its lack of authenticity, or the fact that the filmmaker doesn’t belong to the culture he seeks to portray, or that the principal actors look like two Montrealers who appear to have no hereditary traits of their character’s pasts. Many actors have played and writers have written about the elsewhere without having experienced it – one need only think of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, or even Homer himself, who, many scholars believe, was blind and so never witnessed the destruction of Troy. The trouble with Incendies lies in its detachment from local histories, local tragedies, and its contrived efforts to compensate for these non-experiences with grand, dramatic, theatrical moments; the relentless onslaught of one violent scene after another. Incendies is reminiscent of those romantic painters who draw distant, exotic landscapes devoid of darkness and, one might suspect, affinity and concern.

  • jaswant guzder

    this is a profound comment by rawi hage on a film that most of us may have perceived through the lens of the sophocles or hellenic legends.none the less the lesson of revisiting the film through the eyes of a lebanese or arab world insider has many lessons. it floats the question of disengagement from the cultural hybridity in an art form, the exoticization of the other and the reduction of the complex world of Others to a gaze that suits the local context not the reality of the subject. at times such artist license can be deeply disturbing ( for me the example of robert lepage’s treatment of the chinese subject in his trilogy) or revises my perception of a narrative ( eg. peter brook’s version of the mahabharata where the classic roles are protrayed with non Indian actors). my familiarity with the mahabharata opened it to a new reading of meaning in the myth. On the other hand lepage’s version of identity of non Quebecois subjects often leave me deeply disturbed and almost violated by his lack of empathy or depth in addressing the predicament of the Other in a nationalist francophone state. thank you for broadening my gaze , it moves me to see incendies again.

  • John Fretz

    I agree totally with Rawi. Incendies was an ‘effects movie’ virtually devoid of a core. And whether based on reality or not, appeared contrived from the moment the heroine ran down a guarded path ‘only to be captured’ when anyone in danger would’ve taken a detour. It was basically unwatchable from a generation of filmmakers who either don’t understand clichés or who think that ‘real incident’ allows for some benedict that substitutes suspense for the matrix of conscious and unconscious behaviour.

  • Martha Roth

    Thanks to Rawi Hage for nailing the inauthenticity of INCENDIES. Having seen both the play (in English) and the film, I find the story not merely unpleasant but so implausible as to make it ineffective. We already knew that war is hell, thanks.

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