French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has attracted an avid fan base with his controlled, slick, intense aesthetic. He’s like an art-house iteration of Christopher Nolan, in the way that the brooding audio-visual atmospheres of both directors' films are in tune with contemporary sensibilities of what is, for lack of a better word, "cool." Both directors make movies that are emotionally cold — austere and stoic, if not outright detached — but at the same time seeking to deliver an emotional wallop through the mechanics of of the narratives. That's a hard gap to bridge, but an effort that aligns with my own preferences; yet, I often find myself disappointed with how these two directors struggle to translate their intent, and their technical proficiency, into something actually meaningful.
Incendies tells, primarily, the story of two women, a young Canadian mathematician, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), and her mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). At the reading of her late mother's will, Jeanne begins, for the first time, discovering Nawals' past as a notorious figure in her home country's civil war. Villeneuve capably mirrors Jeanne’s journey into her mother's life with flashbacks of Nawal’s transformation from a cultural victim into a cultural icon. Based on the novel by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies features a compelling mystery at its core, one that is both epic and intimate, giving Villeneuve ample material for building slow-burn tension, capturing striking imagery of forlorn people stalking arid landscapes and war-torn villages, and delivering brutal punches of sudden tragedy.
So far so good: Incendies has all the ingredients of a thrilling and “important” drama that should be shattering in the hands of a serious and stylistically bold director. Villeneuve announces his intentions with an attention-grabbing opening scenes of child soldiers being groomed for war, set to the unusual soundtrack of Radiohead's droning, rising challenge anthem "You and Whose Army." It's a strong choice that takes a familiar scene and subverts cinematic expectations, replacing the cliched "call to prayer" soundtrack that would surely accompany this scene in a movie on autopilot. With this introduction, Villeneuve is asserting an original and post-modern voice. But announcing intentions and making good on them are two different propositions. As with most of Nolan's films, I find Villeneuve's movies missing a needed connection between the too-careful delivery and the messiness of life. Their movies feel like engineering projects from skilled designers who don't know how to translate a clinical attention to detail into the inspiration of actual art. Any emotional resonance feels over-designed, mechanically orchestrated and swallowed by the process. This is true of Incendies, as well as Villeneuve's most emotionally aggressive movie, Arrival (2016), and the same applies to Nolan's overwrought climax of Inception (2010).
Another problem which I consistently have with Villeneuve's movies, but which is less easy to categorize, is that his endings either deliver too much or too little. I think some of this might be an irresolvable clash between the sophistication of his craft and a lack of natural depth in his mostly genre-oriented subject matter — although Incendies flips the trend that affected his later movies. Prisoners (2012), for example. built like an exploitation movie toward the unravelling of a complicated conspiracy, and then underwhelmingly shirked expectations with an unambitious climax; Incendies, on the other hand, is quietly contemplative for most of its running time and then, in the final minutes, goes for a contrived soap opera twist that is crassly out-of-step with the preceding tone, disrupting an otherwise steady emotional current.
As someone who is neither a fan of superhero movies nor Blade Runner (1982), I think it's significant that my favorite Nolan and Villeneuve movies are, respectively, The Dark Knight (2008) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Maybe my lowered expectations for these properties made it easier for their sophisticated styles enhance what I consider fairly shallow material; or maybe without a sense of responsibility to something more serious, these gifted technicians felt more free to let their visual accomplishments soar (I've only seen Blade Runner 2049 once, and am in no hurry for a disappointing re-watch, but it played magnificently in a big and very loud auditorium). Or maybe it's just because, for all of their impressive surface mood building, I don't find anything that original or interesting underneath, no complexity or beating heart or provocation. I still enjoyed watching Incendies — especially Désormeaux-Poulin's performance, and that Radiohead song has been stuck in my head for a week now — I just don't find much else in it worth thinking about.