Saturday, March 26, 2011

From Canada, with neurosis

When I checked just now, I was pleased to discover I’ve seen eighteen of the last twenty winners of the Genie for best Canadian motion picture: the exceptions are Bon Cop, Bad Cop and Passchendaele (which, ironically, were much more generally popular than some of the other eighteen). I mean, I like the idea of supporting Canadian film, even though my dislike for much of the work of Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand (who account between them for five of the eighteen films) poses a bit of a handicap. But in practice, on any given day, the Canadian choice doesn’t often win out. Actually, I wish there were some influence in my life – an inner voice, or some form of peer pressure – to help it win out more often.


Against that backdrop, I’m not sure why I delayed getting to Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies for as long as I did: I only finally went in its sixth or seventh week of release. Of course, the most heartening thing about that sentence is that a Canadian film stayed in release for six or seven weeks (and is still going strong). The film was widely acclaimed – Peter Howell of The Star named it his favourite of the year, Canadian or otherwise – and it was one of the five nominees for the best foreign language film Oscar. And Villeneuve’s last film Polytechnique - a very potently chilly and yet deeply felt study of the 1989 Montreal massacre and its aftermath - was last year’s Genie winner. By its nature, that’s the kind of project where every aesthetic decision runs the risk of being perceived as an unwarranted imposition on tragedy, but Villeneuve ably avoided the pitfalls; the problem, perhaps, is that one remembers Polytechnique more for avoiding pitfalls than for what it actually achieved.

I think I suspected, in a similar vein, that Incendies might bear the strain of over-calculation, a suspicion which was borne out in some ways but not in others. Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, the film, in the words of one online summary tells “the powerful and moving tale of two young adults' voyage to the core of deep-rooted hatred, never-ending wars and enduring love.” The two are twins, living in Quebec; their mother Nawab relocated from the Middle East some two decades earlier. When she dies, her will confirms their father (who they previously also presumed dead) remains alive, and also informs them for the first time they have a brother; she leaves a sealed letter for each man (but no clues to their whereabouts), directing her grave not receive a stone with her name on it until these are delivered. Jeanne flies to her mother’s birthplace to track down these relatives, triggering a chain of discoveries; the film intercuts her journey (and later that of her brother Simon) with flashbacks to her mother’s experiences.

Extreme revelation

The summary I quoted perhaps makes the film sound more conventional than it actually is, because of course any number of movies dramatize humanity asserting itself against a grim and chaotic backdrop. Incendies distinguishes itself through the extremity of its final revelation; it pushes war’s dislocating and perverting effect to an almost cellular level, suggesting that understanding the turbulence of these events entails being willing to give up almost everything we assumed about ourselves, and that any sense of wartime atrocities as sealed off in the past comes only from choosing not to see their wounds in the present (or not knowing where to look). As if in deliberate contrast to Polytechnique, which appeared consistently wary of disrespecting people by rendering them as symbols, Incendies is knowingly evocative and expansive.

On the other hand, taken at face value, the ending is absurd, a grotesque contrivance that depends on several layers of coincidence – some layers at best unlikely and others outright outlandish – and that belongs more to the toolkit of dumb-ass thriller twists than serious engagement with complex subjects. One strongly suspects it might have been more effective on stage, at least in the more abstract, starkly theatrical production I’m envisaging. This is only the culmination of reservations that accumulate throughout the film. Jeanne’s investigation is one of those movie-friendly enterprises where the trail never goes cold for long; even after thirty-five years or so in a devastated country, someone always pops up to put her on the right track. I know these are to some extent necessary narrative conventions, hardly incompatible with deeper truth. But Villeneuve spends little time on that deeper truth – the film provides little specific perspective on broader complexities. I suppose the point would be that none is necessary or ultimately meaningful – events speak much louder than the supposed rationalizations or ideologies or doctrines behind them. But this creates a severe risk of creating a conventionally “absorbing” film in which we shake our heads at the plight of the world while coasting along on easy, over-determined identification with a few unrepresentative protagonists. One of the film’s signature images, of Nawab’s agonized face in the foreground while a bus full of Muslims burns behind her, exemplifies this problem – it’s a striking and wrenching composition, but very obviously composed.

Chronic insecurity

It often seems Canadian directors are operating under a chronic insecurity, afraid of losing their audiences somewhere between A and B; those eighteen Genie winners contain a disproportionate amount of time-shifting, fragmented structures, perverse motivation, tortured memory and other overcooked enhancements to mundane old stories of everyday life. I don’t know what in the country’s DNA encourages such neurosis, but Incendies fits comfortably into that strand, even if it applies this Canadian toolkit to foreign cultures and pains. If it had told its story chronologically for instance, would it have said any less about its apparent subject matter? I doubt it – if anything, it would only have said less about us and how we interact with the past. But the insistence on a contemporary platform can seem like merely a failure of courage. In this sense Incendies recalls Egoyan’s Ararat, which I recall as portraying a fantasy present-day Toronto where everyone walks around preoccupied by questions of the Armenian massacre (it won the Genie too).

Unfortunately, I doubt Incendies will be remembered in a few years any more passionately than Egoyan’s film. You might like it this much or that much, but its memory-driven structure will only dilute its presence in our own memories; like all puzzles, once the solution is established, there’s no reason not to put it back in the box, and thereafter no reason to solve it again. That may be a way to win a Canadian prize, but then, winning a Genie usually constitutes a particular form of being utterly forgotten.

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