Denis Villeneuve’s popularity has increased tenfold since the release of Prisoners and anticipation is running high for his latest release, Arrival but let’s take it back a few years and look at the last film he did before moving on to English language pictures. During the reading of their mother, Nawal’s (Lubna Azabal) will, twins Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) learn that the father they thought was dead, is in fact alive and that they also have a brother they knew nothing about. Nawal leaves them each a letter to deliver to these unknown relatives, sending them travelling to the Middle East to uncover the family history they had no idea existed. Lubna Azabal is given a fairly gargantuan task in showing all the emotion and turmoil for her character, it’s practically never-ending and yet it feels genuine from start to finish, there’s no moment where you aren’t drawn in to sympathise with her. The attempts made to age her when using one actress for the character over several years are not entirely convincing, although for the minimal amount of screen time her older self receives, it’s a negligible problem. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin also does well, she isn’t required to go to the same depths as Azabal, given that the characters’ stories are worlds apart from each other but in the moments where more is asked of her, emotionally, she does step up to the task. Maxim Gaudette however as Simon feels like a fairly one dimensional role, there’s plenty of angst and outrage but his purpose looks more like plot development than as much of a meaningful character.
The film has a strong, bold opening which sets the tone for the entire experience, a significant amount of that strength emanating from the quiet, in this very sombre affair. It’s a story that’s extremely captivating, which is supported by interesting characters that you can invest in as an audience which is typical of Villeneuve’s style. A style which is most relevant in the tone and atmosphere, in this instance perhaps not as dark and gritty as his most recent work but intense nonetheless. There’s almost a simplicity to it which allows the focus to never waver from our principal characters, especially with the choice of a mixture of past and present, to create a dispersal of the plot which allows for segments at a time rather than holding for a majority reveal closer to the end. There is a perspective that could say the story is somewhat predictable, although this is mostly for the section of the audience who purposely attempt to figure out the ending, for those who simply watch without delving into possible outcomes, it is probably less predictable.
It’s certainly not as much of a punch in the gut as that of Sicario, Prisoners or Enemy but instead is a fascinating and profound story that’s difficult to look away from. It certainly highlights how little you can know about a person, even those close to you and it may have lost out to an Oscar to Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, Incendies has been superior in its critical reception; after watching it you’ll be able to see why.