Denis Villeneuve has been quietly gathering momentum since his debut Un 32 août sur terre first wowed critics in 1989, further enhancing his reputation with the visceral psycho-drama Maelstrom
Denis Villeneuve has been quietly gathering momentum since his debut Un 32 août sur terre first wowed critics in 1989, further enhancing his reputation with the visceral psycho-drama Maelstrom, scooping prizes at international film festivals as if they were being handed out for free. His next film, Polytechnique, a visually bold dramatisation of the real events of a misogynist’s murderous rampage in Montreal, cemented the French-Canadian as an auteur to watch.
For his latest feature, Incendies, Villeneuve has conjured up a haunting morality tale that the ancient Greeks would’ve adored, a melancholy parable enriched with explorations of revenge and forgiveness, of familial love and pride at whatever cost. It also happens to be his most accomplished film to date.
The action opens with a sequence of slowed down camera tracks of young boys being inducted into the army, many of them look hardly a day over ten years old. Faceless older men shave their heads with razors while Radiohead’s ‘You & Whose Army’ reaches an operatic crescendo culminating in a symbol crash which leads us into a lawyer’s office, into somewhere comfortable. Somewhere peaceful.
After this sinister dreamlike opening, the scene quietens down to reveal two people sat opposite a well-fed lawyer. There to receive their mother’s will, Simon and Jeanne discover their father is still alive and they have a secret sibling, made all the more mysterious by a set of bizarre stipulations left behind in her will. They hesitantly agree to track them down given the assurance that they will receive an envelope explaining everything once her requests have been met. Employing a dual narrative that elegantly intertwines the past with the present, it is a heart wrenching and hard hitting story of a woman’s struggle to find inner peace and regain her dignity, a casualty of circumstance and an unspecified Middle Eastern conflict who must try to cope with the injustices of its aftermath.
Brilliantly adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s stage play, Villeneuve has transformed Incendies into a truly cinematic experience, its big emotions necessitating the enormity of the projection screen. Melodramatic without descending into hysteria, extreme but believable, Villeneuve raises the stakes so high and invites the audience into such close proximity to his characters that it’s like walking alongside them. Demonstrating confident storytelling ability, Villenueve succeeds most in the masterly shielding and unravelling of revelations, as if slowly filling in the pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle, casually throwing viewers off the scent as they try to outwit him.
I arrive at the Soho Hotel unsure of what to expect. I try to imagine what the person responsible for Maelstrom looks like without much success. How will he pronounce ‘about’? Greeting me with a firm handshake and a cheek-to-cheek grin, he’s softly spoken yet humming with energy and good humour. Not how actors or directors normally behave at the end of a long day of being repeatedly asked the same questions. Taking this into consideration I promise I’ve come up with at least a few original ones. “No, I completely understand. People want to know about the film, so of course it is only natural the same questions will come up.” I accuse him of just being polite, surely he gets bored of being asked the same questions over and over? “I’m just happy people like the film and, judging by their questions, are really getting it”.
Not having had a chance to confer yet with other critics, it comes as no surprise that it’s been well received. I ask him how he came about adapting Waji Mouawad’s play to the screen. “He is a young and prolific author who, whenever he releases something different, I make sure I go to see it. Some of it I love, some of it I don’t like but he has a very strong voice. I managed to get the last two tickets so I almost didn’t see it. Afterwards I was walking out of the theatre on my knees. It was 3 ½ hours long and I felt as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room; the audience had been so gripped by it”.
So how different is the film from its original source material?
“I didn’t bring any new ideas per se. I tried to protect all the main themes about family, politics, hate and anger. But I also made a lot of changes. I kept the same dramatic structure, the same main characters but beside that… It was a very talkative play, full of long monologues and all the images on the stage were very beautiful but they were also very theatrical so I started from scratch. I destroyed the play but I had permission to do that. It was a beautiful gift to let me do this.”
Had Incendies’ theatrical origins concerned Villeneuve? Particularly in an age where melodrama as a cinematic genre is unfashionable?
“Yes. The play was more about playing with lyricism and had more mythological elements. I had to reassess the emotionally charged elements of the play or risk making the audience laugh. I had to be very careful. The story was already so close to a Greek tragedy I knew the film couldn’t be theatrical, even though I do like films with theatrical elements.”
After the screening I attended, a question on a lot of lips was what conflict the film was actually depicting. Despite some references to specific places, the war itself seems to occupy s space between historical reality and fantasy. How did he interpret the play’s handling of geography?
“The story is set in a fiction land. When I first saw the play I had that question at the back of my head: ‘Where is this set?’ but I knew all the time that [Mouawad] was referring to the Lebanese civil war. But I liked the fact that it wasn’t certain so I kept it that way.”
Everything is running smoothly until we broach the film’s theme of mathematics, an area on which we are split regarding its success. Was it in Mouawad’s original production?
“The mathematics were far more present in the play and it was, in my opinion, more elegant, more interesting. I was worried on the screen it would look like too much of a device. But I retained the element because I thought it so beautifully expressed something about Jeanne’s character.”
I question whether including this aspect of Jeanne’s character risked coming across too strongly on screen, as if trying to define her character too concretely, particularly given the equation-like structure that otherwise frames the plot. Had the director’s mark become too clearly visible perhaps?
“This theme is certainly present but I don’t think it is too prominent. I did not want to confront the audience with it. I wanted it to be there but not be too obvious.”
What of the strong Christian themes, particularly the allusions to martyrdom, suffering and original sin. Was any of this informed by any religious convictions of his own?
He responds somewhat apologetically: “There are certainly religious elements in the play. I am personally not religious whatsoever but I respect that it is in there and I kept it because I feel that it worked with the story. I try to be as neutral as possible.”
Crucial to enjoying Incendies is being kept in the dark until the final moment where everything is revealed. What steps did he take to ensure the audience wouldn’t get there before him?
”The revelation is so powerful, so horrific that society tends to remain silent towards it. Perhaps because it is so unthinkable. Maybe.”
The visual unravelling of the revelation is very well structured, luring the viewer in with each progressive drip of information. Had he storyboarded more than usual to achieve this intricately planned effect?
He replies assertively: “I always like to improvise but before I even shoot the film it already exists in my head. So it is very precise shooting but I do not spend much time drawing or storyboarding the sequence.”
Sadly, my rather slim slot comes to an end with the wagging of a PR rep’s finger. It’s annoying. I had a lot more to ask him, particularly about the cast and the use of soundtrack but there are some other journalists waiting impatiently, presumably armed with the same questions.
He thanks me for the interview, shaking my hand with an enthusiasm only a seasoned professional can be bothered to feign. “But were the questions original?” I ask. “They were interesting” he concedes.
Incendies is out on theatrical release on Fri 24th Jun