Saturday, March 19, 2011


Many reviewers have likened the Oscar-nominated Incendies to a Greek tragedy, and that comparison is - in a word - apt. The movie tells the devastating story of how the Lebanese Civil War forever altered the lives of Nawal Marwan and her children. Without getting into spoilers, the narrative serves as an allegory for the reproductive nature of hatred. It explores how violence has a rippling effect that hurts everyone it touches, and how forgiveness and love are required to end the resultant suffering. But while that might sound like the perfect setup for a hopeful drama about finding a way to end cycles of hatred, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than focusing on solutions, Incendies instead depicts the most horrifying possible outcomes of hate begetting hate in self-perpetuating patterns. Make no mistake, this is not an uplifting movie. It is a brutal experience that wallows in the misery and pain that human beings cause one another.

It makes sense that Incendies was nominated for an Oscar, but it is unsurprising that it did not win given how unflinchingly tragic the movie is. Towards the end the story becomes so harrowing that it is only bearable for how obviously contrived it is, and that is both the movie's finest moment as well as its greatest failing.

I'm really straining to avoid spoilers here, but suffice to say that at Incendies' climax it's revealed that all the pain the characters suffer is not meaningless. It is made abundantly clear that the whole story is figuratively about the effects of endless cycles of hate, and the kind of work that is required the resultant suffering. In one sense it's the perfect ending, because it gives greater significance to everything that's come before. Even the most distressing scenes in the film become strangely beautiful when their context in the whole meaning becomes clear.

On the other hand, the way in which this is achieved is so quick and blunt that it makes the artifice so painfully obvious the whole experience loses some of its tragic tone. The climactic transition is marked by M. Night. Shyamalan-esque twist that you can see coming a mile away, and it's quite literally the most horrible thing that could possibly happen. I spent the last few minutes leading up to it silently begging the story not to go where I rightly suspected it was headed.

But the problem isn't with what happens per se. It's over the top, granted, but it actually does make sense in terms of Incendies' overall tone and thematic structure. Rather the problem is with how the final piece of the puzzle is presented. As I said, you can see it coming form a mile away, but it's just so horrible that you don't actually expect the movie to go there. Once it does you're left amazed at the level of depravity the film has stooped to and the overabundance of human suffering, and above all else stupefied by the utter tactlessness with which the surprise conclusion is presented.

And that's just it: the ending of Incendies is so contrived and clumsily presented that it brings you out of the filmgoing experience. Everything fits, artistically speaking, but it's just so obviously art that it actually makes the entire experience less affective. Right up until the big reveal I was absolutely devastated, the movie had reduced me to an emotional wreck; but as soon as the big picture was revealed I suddenly didn't care anymore. I couldn't. None of it seemed real anymore.

Since seeing Incendies I've discovered that it's adapted from a play called Scorched, and from what I've read online it sounds like one of the primary differences between the original play and this film adaptation is the way the ending is handled. Liam Lacey calls the film version "stripped-down," and takes issue with the loss of "the playwright's poetic language." Both critiques make a lot of sense given how rushed and poorly written the film's ending comes off. Again, the issue with Incendies isn't the content so much as it is the form, and it's actually somewhat relieving to hear that the original play succeeds exactly where the movie fails. At least one presentation of the powerful story lives up to its poetic design.

I thought Incendies was a stellar film and I'm glad I saw it. That said, I never want to see it again. Ever. I could be tempted to go see a good production of the original play, Scorched, but even that's a maybe at best. It's an incredible tale and a true modern Greek tragedy, in every sense of the comparison, but frankly I don't need that kind of unhappiness in my life.


  1. Nicely put, bud! I am looking forward to the review of Another Year for which you may use me as a thesaurus for synonyms of "excruciating."

  2. Cough, cough, if somebody had read the quickie review of this I posted to my blog a few weeks back, they might not have been quite so surprised at the ending. Cough.

    Anyway, I liked how you said that "Everything fits, artistically speaking, but it's just so obviously art that it actually makes the entire experience less affective." I would say that it also undercuts what the movie is trying to say about the universality of hate begetting hate- there are so many coincidences to make the plot work that it's hard to see it as anything but a very particular, singular, family tragedy.

  3. After seeing "Incendies" , I started reading reviews to compare my thoughts with others. Yours is the most thoughtful and individual. Thanks ! 

  4. Thanks for your kind words, I'm glad you liked the review! Looking back over it I can see a few embarrassing typos, hope it wasn't too hard to understand :S