Before I went to see Snowtown, I made sure to mentally prepare myself for the viewing challenge which I knew lay before me. Being based on subtext and nuance, it's not the easiest thing to get a complete grasp of after one viewing, even though that's all you ever want to see of it. I dearly, dearly wish that someone had warned me before I bought my ticket for Incendies, as it turns out to be not just a drama but a character study, a political statement and a slow burning twisty-turny thriller which has the capability to fry your brain completely.
The film details the life, both past and present, of the recently deceased Nawal Marwan, and her twin children, Simon and Jeanne. After leaving them some slightly cryptic tasks in her will Jeanne drags her brother along on her quest to honour her mother's last wishes. But the road which she drags him down doesn't end where anyone expects.
Denis Villeneuve directs this searing mystery with an ungodly talent. After an opening which Kubrick would be proud of, he fills the screen with shot after beautiful shot which manage to capture both the harshness of the surroundings and the inner feelings of the character. He moves easily between the dreary suburbia of Canada and the unforgiving wilderness of an unnamed Middle-Eastern country in the throes of religious and political turmoil. The savage war serves as a background for Villeneuve's equally savage story of a young woman's journey from a headstrong and impulsive girl to a strong, resilient woman who stays in the minds of even the most vicous war criminals. Villeneuve is unafraid to dwell on the bursts of violence which are inherit in the setting of the film but they are never gratuitous or glorified, making it that much more sickening when they occur. He shows himself to be an extremely diverse director too, handling the drama as adeptly as he does the violence, capturing what's not being said with the subtletly and deftness of touch of someone with a rap sheet twice the length of his own.
The script is fittingly restrained. No explanations or putting on of the brakes for the unlucky viewer who falls behind, no sir. And with a narrative structure which makes Pulp Fiction look like a children's book, it's very easy to lose track of both time and character. We skip back and forth, seemingly at random, from the ongoing search and Nawal's turbulent past, but in the film's powerful finale it's as if you can almost see all the threads being pulled together. It's not as pretentious a trick as The Prestige, nor as bamboozling as The Usual Suspects, but it's as hard hitting as a sledgehammer to the stomach.
Anchoring this entire labyrinth are the wonderful performances, particularly on behalf of Lubna Azabal. With an incredibly restrained yet distressingly realistic performance, Azabal invests her character with nuance and intricacy. The character may not look like much chop on paper, but the life and reality which Azabal fills her with is simply astounding to see. Most fascinating to see is the distinction between her character in the past and her character in the future. The huge differences between the two sides of the coin makes the journey in between fascinating and Azabal executes it perfectly. Her character's children also pull their weight in the film, Gaudette's Simon is a powerhouse of angst where Poulin's Jeanne is his polar opposite: cool, calm and collected in any situation. And when the final revelation hits home to these two characters, their shock and despair is palpable without feeling like a soap opera. The two share a beautiful moment in the swimming pool where they confront their feeling and share their unbearable grief with a single embrace. The supporting cast may not have all that much to do, focussing mainly on the three at the centre of the film, but Elaaziz is as terrifying as his character would demand and Remy Girard makes a solid notary as Jean Lebel.
But apart from Azabal's incredible performance, the star of the show is the beautiful style employed by everyone involved. The difficult and intimidating structure of the narrative is fantastically original and groundbreaking, investing more trust than usually expected in its audience, the film looks beautiful in every scene and the sprawling storyline is able to make its mark on various themes from politics to family to life itself. It may not be for everybody but it's definitely for this guy. I'm sitting here with my thumbs pointing at my face by the way. This guy!
Nawal Marwan takes a bus through the country and doesn't quite reach her destination.
Can one and one ever equal the same thing?