Spoils of war
Denis Villeneuve can still recall the many conversations he had with international distributors last September when he went to the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals with his latest film, Incendies. 'They were saying to me, we can release the movie after the Academy Awards in February,' he says. 'I was like, 'What the hell are you talking about?' At one point I remember my wife looking at me and saying, 'You look very tired' - and I said, 'They all think I'm going to go [to the Oscars]', but I thought I had no chance!'
Except, of course, he does. When we meet at the De Doelen cultural complex in Rotterdam - where Incendies played to packed theatres and won the UPC Audience Award at the Dutch city's annual international film festival last month - the 43-year-old Quebecois director has just become an Oscar-nominated filmmaker. Incendies is one of the five nominees for this year's best foreign-language film award.
A contemplative, visually stunning film, Incendies is a lyrical treatise about the casualties of war, adapted from a 2005 play by the Lebanese-born playwright Wajdi Mouawad. The film revolves around twins who are probing the life their recently deceased mother Nawal (played by Belgian actor Lubna Azabal) led before she arrived in Canada in the 1980s and reinvented herself as a nondescript secretary in a legal firm.
The siblings, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simone (Maxim Gaudette), travel to Nawal's homeland - an unnamed Middle Eastern country mired in a civil war between Christian and Muslim militias - to discover the troubles their mother's political beliefs brought her as well as a shocking revelation which makes them re-evaluate their own roots.
'The story was very telling about the world - the way Wajdi thinks we can stop cycles of anger and violence,' says Villeneuve, referring to the twins' quest for reconciliation with the source of their mother's torment. 'I thought it was full of hope and it was such a powerful and beautiful story. A tough one, yes, but there's a lot of light and it's very original - and I was seduced by the way he was trying to tell a very modern Greek tragedy.'
Staying in line with Mouawad's play, Villeneuve veers away from the rights and wrong of geopolitics and zeroes in on how individuals are affected when sucked into the violence engendered by war.
Villeneuve says he spent three years rewriting Incendies, partly because he was simultaneously working on another film - Polytechnique, which was released to similar acclaim in 2009 - but also because of the 'pressure' he felt when he tried to be faithful both to Mouawad's play and also to the historical and cultural specifics of the story.
Rather than simply adopting the original material wholesale, Villeneuve says he overcame the first challenge by conjuring drastically different imagery to go with the spirit of Mouawad's story.
The opening of the film is a case in point, he says. The film begins with a haunting, slow-motion sequence which juxtaposes a group of Arab boys lined up in a hut having their heads shaved by menacing, gun-wielding men with the melancholy refrains of Radiohead's You and Whose Army.
'It's the first scene I wrote. When Wajdi was considering giving me the rights, I had to convince him. It was very important to him that if I made a film out of this play, it was my own,' Villeneuve says.
'So I wrote several small scenes which were not just transpositions of the play, but came from the emotions I received from the play.'
The song's line about armies, cronies and 'the Holy Roman Empire' matched the setting of the story, he adds. 'It's in a part of the world where our main religion came from, and also emperors, conquerors and colonisers.'
Meanwhile, Villeneuve says he consulted his own army of experts to make his portrayal of Nawal's Lebanon-like Middle Eastern country convincing. 'I was talking about something I didn't really know - Arabic culture,' he says. 'I revised the screenplay several times according to the advice from Lebanese journalists, teachers and actors, who gave me a lot of input. They asked me to rewrite a lot of scenes in order to be faithful to Arabic culture.'
While apprehensive at the start about his own lack of knowledge about the topic, Villeneuve says he eventually believed his shortcomings could become a strength. Set mostly in a far-away country, Incendies provided Villeneuve with a sharp contrast to Polytechnique, a fictional film based on the notorious Montreal Massacre, in which a 25-year-old killed 14 students in a shooting and stabbing rampage in an engineering school on December 6, 1989.
'I remember when I did that film someone close to me said to me, 'Are you aware you might not have the distance to do such a film? You're too close',' says Villeneuve. 'It's the opposite for me in Incendies - people were saying you have the right distance to do the film. I felt comfortable talking about this world in fiction, that it's clear it has nothing to do with reality'.'
But Polytechnique and Incendies are linked in another aspect, Villeneuve says. Both films 'deal with women's conditions and their relationships with the masculine world'. The former revolves around the shooting - the gunman left a note saying he was out to kill feminists, and all his victims were female students - while the latter is a story about Nawal's suffering in a patriarchical social order.
Villeneuve's interest in female disfranchisement runs interestingly against his fondness for films such as Apocalypse Now, which on the surface is a sprawling epic about war. But the director sees similarities between that and what he tried to do in Incendies. 'Apocalypse Now has this fantastic ability to illustrate an intimate quest about identity, to show this maelstrom of a character in a cinematic way,' he says. 'I know some people didn't like the film because it was too much of a show, but I think it's pure genius because [director Francis Ford Coppola] was able to portray this downhill slide into the human soul.'
By tomorrow morning, we will know whether Incendies, and its own depiction of the unpeeling of a human being, has followed Coppola's epic and won an Academy Award. But win or lose, speculation about Villeneuve's Oscar chances will finally be over.
Incendies will be screened on March 24, 7.15pm, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. It will be on general release from April 7