Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Incendies": French-Canadian mystery looks back at the war that destroyed Beirut

English professor John Knowles wrote, besides “A Separate Peace” (the film of which I saw twice in the early 1970s), a short story called “The Reading of the Will”.  The movie “Raising Helen” starts with such a reading.

Wills can indeed live through “the dead hand” and give the bequestor the chance to demand interpersonal exercises from beneficiaries, to limit them, or to make them “pay their dues”. That may be more common in Europe than in the US.  But such is the case with the Hitchcock-like French Canadian thriller "Incendies”  ("Fire"), directed by Denis Villeneuve, filmed in Montreal, Lebanon and Jordan, mostly in French with some Arabic.

In the opening, attorney Jean Lebel  (Remy Girard) reads the will of his deceased employer Nawal  (Lubna Azabal), having perished at 60 after an accident, to two adult thirtyish children who are fraternal twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desomoreaux-Poulin) and hotheaded by likeable Simon (Maxim Gaudette). Jeanne has been pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematics and wants to solve the Seven Bridges problem in topology.  (The “four color” problem was actually solved and proved at the University of Connecticut in the 1980s, I am told.)  The attorney (or notary) reads that Simon is to locate an unknown brother, and Jeanne is to locate their natural father. Simon resists, but Jeanne takes up the challenge, going to Lebanon and discovering a complicated backstory involving the civil wars of the 1970s that tore Beirut to pieces. The film jumps back in forth in time, showing many violent episodes.  It gets into rapes and unplanned pregnancies, and destruction of “family honor”, as well as Nawal’s stint in prison.  Eventially Simon joins the fray, leading to a climactic meeting with a warlord in today’s war torn Middle East. The brother was engages in activities which western society condemns.  To say more would be to spoil things.  But there is still more to say at the end.

The film is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, which this season has distributed most of the foreign language Oscar nominees, which seem to focus on international mysteries with backstories and “treasure hunts” for plots (like Vertigo).  The aspect ratio is standard (which helps the close-ups, as in the tradition of the great British mystery director), but the middle Eastern desert scenery is spectacular.

The link for the film is here.

I saw the late show at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington VA; the crowd was relatively small, but the audience liked it.

Here follows the Hop Scotch Films YouTube trailer:

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