Dir. Denis Villeneuve
(2011, R, 130 min)

Incendies – a 2010 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, representing Canada – begins as the story of adult children who only learn who their mother was after her death, but as it wears on it loses sight of that strong central theme and gets caught up in its own melodrama, introducing complications upon complications upon complications, which then double back around to make new compound complications. Complex math equations are used as a metaphor, but the film itself represents a mathematical paradox: that of a whole less than the sum of its parts.

Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are mild-mannered French-Canadian twins, the children of Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), who has recently died and left them bizarre instructions in her will: they must locate their father, whom they believed was dead, and their brother, whom they never knew existed. Simon is incredulous, but Jeanne accepts the mission and travels to an unnamed Middle Eastern country to investigate her mother’s past.

The early stages of the film are moving in how they show Jeanne uncovering secrets she had never imagined; she never really knew who her mother was, but now that she is an adult herself she can begin to understand. As Jeanne conducts her investigation, the film shows Nawal’s life in flashbacks, from her exile from her family – she was Christian, but fell in love with a Muslim refugee – to the search for the son she gave up to protect her family’s honor. That would be enough for any film, but this one turns the dial to eleven, throwing in freedom fighting, massacres, imprisonment, and torture, which the children discover with the help of their mother’s notary, who takes his job as seriously as the secret agents from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

With its overabundance of plot twists, the film at last crosses the threshold beyond which tragedy becomes absurdity; I laughed in places I definitely wasn’t supposed to laugh, including one late scene in which the siblings ponder one plus one (to explain the context would spoil the film). The incidents themselves begin to strain credulity, but the coincidences break the camel’s back. For the plot to assemble itself in this way and produce the results it does requires a confluence of events so perfectly improbable that I just didn’t believe it; I didn’t feel like I was watching a story but rather a writer playing tricks on his characters. Denis Villeneuve directed the film and also wrote the screenplay, adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, and his tone is so serious – reasonably so, given the subject matter – that the contorted plot is an uncomfortable fit. The characters get lost in the shuffle of a protracted scavenger hunt to solve the equation of their lives. When they find the answers, we start to wonder if maybe they should have taken up fine arts or basket-weaving instead of math.