By Christopher Bell | The Playlist April 21, 2011 at 4:22AM
Oh egregious plot twists, when will you stop ruining our movies? You've already turned us against M. Night Shyamalan (though we can't blame you for his last three disasters) and consistently do everything you can to obliterate affection for anything that precedes you. Well, we're not going to let you win this time, because Denis Villeneuve's 2011 Foreign Oscar contender "Incendies" was completely competent before you reared your despicable head. Maybe it's not very profound, but there's good work here. You'll get yours in a little bit.
In a very striking opening, young Arab boys are rounded up somewhere in the Middle East (it's unspecified, but the plot and locale have much in common with Lebanon), waiting their turn for an extreme buzz cut. The camera looms and presses in using slow dolly movements, giving a foreboding and uncomfortable tone to a rather no-nonsense physical scene. For better or worse, Radiohead's "You and Whose Army" sinks in, our focus leaves the unsettling opener and introduces each character separately before finally taking us to a dreary office to jump start the plot.
Notary Jean Libel (Remy Girard, "The Barbarian Invasions") somberly executes the will of his former secretary Nawal (Lubna Azabal, "Paradise Now") to her teenage children, twins Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), who are charged with the task of finding their long-lost father and brother and giving them each a handwritten letter composed by the woman before her death. So aside from being completely broken over the passing of their only parent, they are also staggered to discover that their father is alive and that they have a brother -- never mind the bizarre assignment that's presented to them. Talk about devastating pressure. While Simon would rather just bury her and be done with it, Jeanne respects her mother's wishes and begins the quest, leaving Canada for the Middle East. As she moves from location to location playing detective, she discovers the many different, severe incidents that shaped her parent -- and we too are treated to these past-sequences, following Nawal as she goes from top mathematician to hired killer, from prisoner to child-bearer.
Nawal's story opens with the murder of her first love, the man who impregnated her out of wedlock, and is forced to pay for the shame brought to her family. She is spared by her grandmother, who then sends both her and the baby away -- Nawal to distant relatives, the baby to an orphanage. Rising above the trauma, she begins her studies promisingly, but it seems like trouble is too fond of her -- yet again she finds herself in a mess, caught in the middle of a war and forced to go on the run. This coupled with the latter-day storyline certainly sounds like a lot, but even with a two hour and ten minute runtime, the film couldn't feel any quicker. It's not the puzzle that's the driving force, it's Azabal, who carries her portion with such commanding strength that it's a wonder she doesn't have more opportunities to take the lead. Similarly, things are subdued in the children's plot, but Mom's is where all the action is -- from bus burnings to sniping children, there's not a slight moment to be found. The visuals don't skimp here and this section holds some dazzlingly beautiful shots and set design, a stark contrast to the present timeline's more quiet, lifeless scenes. Admittedly, these segments contain some of the more extreme elements- - and really, they're going to get attention no matter what -- but they are executed brilliantly regardless of their flagrance. In fact, it's a bit disappointing that none of these long stretches (which are so separated they feel like vignettes) make up the entire meat of the movie; surely one of them could've been expanded and made into something truly powerful. The aforementioned scene involving children navigating through rubble and blown up roads while simultaneously avoiding a hidden gunner's cross-hairs is difficult to forget -- but the filmmaker's too fond of his other characters, cutting back to the protagonist's kin and losing potency along the way.
There's also that damn plot twist -- which is, obviously, the answer as to who their father and brother actually are. No spoilers, but the result is so overly-shocking that the real surprise is the audacity of the filmmaker to commit to such a thing -- to reference an early capsule review of ours, it's more or less lifted from a soap opera. Contained within the story is a loose examination of human beings and their different facets (such as the mother being a killer, prisoner, student, refugee, etc.) which the revelation backs up a bit more, but the general idea isn't presented with enough insight for it to be totally forgivable. Also a problem is the undefined location: while it's fully realized with its own decades-fueled religious battles and harrowing war-time conditions, Villeneuve's reluctance to label it as any real-world country makes things hard to follow and too vague. In interviews he plays down the connection to Lebanese history, hoping for it to be universal and neutral -- the latter is bullshit (you have scenes with a child being shot by a sniper and it's not critical of anything?) but the impersonal, watery nature of the former is what really holds things back, and it's unlikely to elicit anything further than a shrug.
Though it is (mostly) a story well told, shocking coincidences are stringed together and depth is overlooked. When the case is finally cracked and the near appalling information is unveiled, the film deflates. Villeneuve proves with "Incendies" that he can successfully take audiences on an engaging ride, but one drastic final move and lack of anything to say only leaves a bitter taste in the mouth as opposed to anything memorable. We'll ride with you again, but next time try keeping the last act twists to a minimum. [B-]