Denis is on fire

Acclaimed play Incendies gets a scorching adaptation

INCENDIES written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, from the play by Wajdi Mouawad, with Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désor­meaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette. An eOne ­release. 130 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (January 21). For movie times, theatres and trailers, see Movies.

As someone who writes about live theatre, I know that a great play can change your life. Now Denis Villeneuve knows it, too.

Several years ago in Montreal, the Genie Award-winning filmmaker bought the last ticket to the final performance of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Incendies, known to English-language theatregoers as Scorched.

And soon, he says, he forgot that he was in a theatre at all.

“I had a terrible seat in the front row, and the actors were right in front of me,” he says, “but I felt this emotional experience all around me. The rest of the audience felt it, too. It was like there was no more air in the theatre.”

Afterwards, out on the street, his girlfriend looked him over.

“She said, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to make a film!’ She had been waiting six years for that moment.”

Villeneuve’s eating soup in an elegant hotel dining room, but his passion – and relief – are clear. After 2000’s acclaimed Maelstrom, he hadn’t been struck with a big enough idea for a feature. Now this one may very well snag an Oscar nomination for best foreign film on Tuesday.

Onstage, the play, which tells the story of twins who travel to an unnamed country in the Middle East to unravel the history of their mysterious dead mother, Nawal, is richly theatrical, featuring a subtle blend of time periods, three actors playing one role and violence that’s suggested by the most minimal means.

So what made him think it would work on film?

“It’s a brilliant mix of detective story and tragedy,” he says. “It was a very poignant story about both the individual and the larger society, about anger in one particular family, but also anger travelling in the society and throughout the world.”

Mouawad smartly avoids identifying the particular country or region where the work is set, using fictional names like Daresh, Der Om and Fouad. Villeneuve says he was initially tempted to locate the work in real history and geography, but he gave up.

“I was about to make a huge mistake,” he says. “In order to work, the film has to be in a fictional zone. Like Costa-Gavras’s Z, when you’re talking about politics, it’s better to have a poetic distance from reality. Incendies is a movie about peace. Mouawad wants to talk about anger without creating anger.”

Finding the right locations, however, was crucial.

“Cinema is very weird,” he says. “I dreamt about places and wrote what I dreamt. And then I arrived at a place south of Jordan that looked exactly like that. Nawal’s house and the landscape around it were exactly what I was looking for.”

But again, Villeneuve wanted to avoid being too specific with his setting.

“I was trying to find an equilibrium between reality and the imagination,” he says. “Sometimes it looks really close to Lebanon, but then we put a camel in a shot, and there are no camels in Lebanon.”

After two serious, wrenching films – he finished Polytechnique while making Incendies – would Villeneuve ever consider making something lighter?

“I have two projects right now, and they’re pretty dark,” he says, smiling. “I’d love to be able to do a comedy like Dr. Strangelove. I’m not a very serious person. Really, I’m very silly.”

Interview Clips

Villeneuve on getting playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s permission (and “keys”) to make the film:

Download associated audio clip.

On a devastating scene in which Jeanne meets women from her mother’s old village:

Download associated audio clip.

On Mouawad’s reaction to the film:

Download associated audio clip.

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