Quebec director Denis Villeneuve received a standing ovation from a clearly stunned audience following the premiere screening of “Incendies” on Monday evening in Toronto. Last week it received raves during its sneak in Telluride and the film received praise and a standing ovation in Venice. Certainly not light viewing, the film – broken into chapters – slowly reveals one striking twist after another.
“I was able to convince the author to let me do the movie and he told me it’s going to take you a lot of time and you’re going to suffer and I’m going back to Paris and I cannot help you,” writer/director Denis Villeneuve told Eugene Hernandez during the indieWIRE chat series this week at the TIFF Filmmaker Lounge.
Based on the play, Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, the heart-wrenching story unfolds amidst the brutality of civil war in Lebanon. During the reading of their mother’s will in Montreal, twins Simon (Maxim Gau) and Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) learn for the first time that they have a brother and that their father – whom they believed was dead – is alive. The pair is troubled when their mother’s notary reveals that it is their mother’s request to deliver envelopes to their long-lost brother and father. Simon is angry and hesitant to fulfill her wishes, but Jeanne sets off to the Middle East to search for her relatives.
Eventually joined by Simon, the pair learn the harsh realities and dark secrets from their mother’s life. Every arrival to a new village unveils a secret and the 130 minute feature, spoken mostly in French and Arabic with English subtitles, flashes back to their mother’s (Lubna Azabal) traumatic ordeal leading up to their birth and emigration to Canada.
Commenting on the film in Venice for indieWIRE, Shane Danielsen called “Incendies” a “coup-de-theatre” and praised the director’s current film and past work.
“Villeneuve is a phenomenally gifted writer and director, as anyone who saw ‘August 32nd on Earth’ or ‘Polytechnique’ will attest; and this film stands as the summation of his achievements to date. The standing ovation he received at its public premiere was entirely deserved.”
“It’s a beautiful and powerful story that I relate to a Greek tragedy,” Villeneuve noted in Toronto. “It’s a modern story with a sort of Greek tragedy element in it.”
Villeneuve said that he wasn’t familiar with Arab culture prior to taking on “Incendies,” but noted that observation was key to filmmaking and learning about culture.
“I think a good director is a good listener. I don’t know anything about war [and] I didn’t know a lot about Arabic people. So in order for me to adapt the screenplay, I had to be a listener… You have to put ego aside, which is difficult for a filmmaker. Half the movie I re-wrote while talking to actors there. And the challenge for me was to be faithful to Arabic culture, but I think we succeeded.”
American audiences will have the chance to judge for themselves. Villeneuve announced that the film had been picked up during a post-screening Q&A Monday evening. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in the U.S.