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From “Oedipus” to “Incendies”

From Oedipus to Incendies

§1.1 The 2011 Oscar-nominated film Incendies earned a total of 15 awards nominations, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Director and writer Denis Villeneuve adapted the screenplay for the film from Wajdi Mouawad’s 2003 play “Scorched”—a quest narrative that chronicles the search of twins Jeanne and Simon for their missing father and brother, after their immigrant mother dies. The film is most heavily influenced by the play which it is adapted from, but there is a missing piece that most of the critics did not address, that of Sophocles’s classic tragedy Oedipus the King.

§1.2 This paper will demonstrate the ways in which Villeneuve engages with the classical structure, themes, and symbolism of the Sophoclean tragedy to create a modern film that, in the words of critic Marshall Fine, “has the weight of Greek tragedy with the white knuckle twists of a great thriller.” [1]

Plot Summary of Incendies

§2.1 This sketch is for the benefit of those who may not have seen Incendies. The film begins in modern-day Canada with the reading of a will. When their mother Nawal Marwan dies, twin children Jeanne and Simon learn they have a living father and another brother. In her will, Nawal leaves them two letters to be delivered to the lost family members. The twins are charged with riddling out this puzzle by finding their father and brother so that they can bury their mother properly.

§2.2 Jeanne, a mathematician, starts the search by herself since her brother resists his mother’s final request. Jeanne’s search leads her to Lebanon, her mother’s homeland where she pieced together her mother’s past. Nawal once fell in love with a man named Wahab, whom her brothers murdered in an honor killing. When Nawal gave birth to Wahab’s child after his death, her family forced her to give up her baby. However, her grandmother tattooed three dots on the back of the newborn’s right heel so that Nawal would be able to identify her son in the future. Then, Nawal went to live with relatives while she attended college in the midst of a civil war.

§2.3 After she learned that the war was reaching the south, including any of the orphanages where her son might be, she ran away to find him. When her search proved unsuccessful, she became part of the plot to assassinate a political leader and for this, was imprisoned Kfar Ryat for fifteen years. There she endured torture and rape from the sadistic Abou Tarek. Out of this abuse, Nawal gave birth to twin children Janaan and Sarwan, whom she is reunited with after she is released from prison. When Jeanne realizes that she and Simon are the products of this rape, she calls her brother to join her in her search.

§2.4 While the audience learns about Nawal’s history with Jeanne and Simon, it also follows the life of Nihad, Nawal’s first-born who she was forced to abandon. Nihad was also searching for his mother but through his journey he grew corrupted, out of necessity. He became a child sniper in Daressa and considered martyrdom, going on a suicide mission, so that his mother may see his picture somewhere and know her son was a hero. Therefore, the audience sees three quests: Nihad for his mother, Nawal for her son, and Jeanne and Simon for their father and brother.

§2.5 The film reaches its grim climax when Jeanne and Simon learn that Abou Tarek is the lost Nihad, their missing father and brother in one person, and that their mother always knew her rapist was her beloved son. Jeanne and Simon learn that Nihad lives as a refugee in Canada and give him both letters in person. When Nihad reads the letters, he learns his own role in his own tragedy. The final scene shows Nihad at his mother’s grave, where her name is shown “in the sun.”

Plot Summary of Oedipus the King

§3.1 In Oedipus the King, King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes give birth to a son whom the oracle predicts will one day murder Laius and marry Jocasta. In order to prevent these events from transpiring, Laius strings a leather thong through the baby Oedipus’s ankles and orders a servant to leave the baby on Mt. Cithaeron to die from exposure.[2] The servant took pity on the baby and instead gives Oedipus to a shepherd. The childless Queen Merope and King Polybus of neighboring Corinth adopt Oedipus as their own son. When Oedipus grows older, he learns from the oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. Believing the oracle to have meant his adopted mother and father, Oedipus leaves his home in Corinth in order to avoid fulfilling the prophecy and goes to the outskirts of Thebes. There, he encounters the monster Sphinx – a creature that kills anyone who cannot answer her riddle.[3] When Oedipus solves the riddle, the Sphinx throws herself over a cliff. To reward Oedipus for saving the city, the Thebans give Oedipus their widowed Queen Jocasta for a bride and elect him king. He succeeds King Laius who had been murdered sometime earlier.

§3.2 This is background information that an ancient, Greek audience would have already known from the Oedipus myth. Sophocles’s play actually opens with a plague of infertility that is afflicting Thebes. The blind prophet Teiresias, the cause of the plague is the fact that Laius’s murderer still resides alive and at large in Thebes. The solution to the mystery of the killer’s identity leads Oedipus to discover long-hidden truths about himself. As the play unfolds, Oedipus realizes that in fact he is Laius’s murderer as well as his son, and that his wife Jocasta, with whom he has had four children, is his own mother. When Oedipus finally learns who he is and what he has done, he gouges out his eyes in horror at the secret of his birth.

The Classical Structure

§4.1 There are thematic and symbolic similarities between the Oedipus and Incendies, but the imitation of a classical structure is even more important than the content. Like the tragedy, the film hangs on a structure that begins at the end and ends at the beginning.

§4.2 Oedipus the King begins with the plague of infertility on Thebes. Keep in mind that the cause of the plague, as Teiresias tells the Thebans, is Laius’s living murderer. The plague itself is the impetus for Oedipus’s discovery of his own past and the parricide and incest he unwittingly committed. It is not, however, the catalyst for the actions themselves. Oedipus’s fate is sealed by the events of his past and he cannot escape this doom. That is the nature of tragedy.

§4.3 Similarly, Jeanne and Simon, Nawal, and Nihad cannot escape the truth of their own family’s history. Jeanne and Simon, once they know the nature of their conception, cannot escape the knowledge that they are the products of rape and incest. Nawal, when she recognizes Abou Tarek as her son, cannot—and, it seems, refuses to—escape the horrific fact that her rapist is her son. Finally, Nihad, once he reads his mother’s letters at the end of the film, cannot take back his crimes against his mother.

§4.4 This is what the classical structure adds to the plot. Since the stories in Oedipus and Incendies begin in medias res, or in the middle of the action, what follows is inevitable. The plot is already set into action and in both works the audience experiences the characters’ emotions as they make horrible discovery after horrible discovery. Already set in motion by events from years earlier, the plot hurtles to the climax, when all is revealed, and decelerates to the denouement, when the characters realize and resign themselves to their fates. The tragedy is that all of these discoveries—the labors of the entire play and film—cannot save Oedipus or Nihad, Jeanne, Simon, and Nawal.

The Role of Feet

§5.1 Feet are pivotal to the plots of Incendies and Oedipus Rex. Oedipus’s feet, swollen from the attempted exposure of his infancy, inform his name. The punning Greek name also associates the word feet with knowledge, implying that the scars on Oedipus’ feet mark the truth of his identity.

§5.2 Nawal’s grandmother tattooed three dots on the back of Nihad’s right heel in order for Nawal to find him in the future. The three dots recall the shattered family of Nawal, Wahab, and Nihad. The three indelible dots can also portend Nawal’s three children who are reunited under horrific circumstances, after her death.

§5.3 Special attention in the form of lingering close-ups is shown to Nihad’s tattooed heel in several key scenes: in the opening scene, back at the scene of his birth, later when he is a child sniper in Deressa, and finally at a Canadian swimming pool where Nawal identifies him as a grown man. Yet the secret of his identity remains hidden from the audience during Nawal’s private recognition scene in the darkness of rape. After Nihad, now the infamous Abou Tarek, rapes her in prison, the camera focuses on the heel concealed in Tarek’s boot. Nawal recognizes her cruel torturer as the son she exposed to a harsh world, instead of atop Mt. Cithaeron. Their reunion is one-sided since Nawal makes the conscious decision to keep her own identity a secret from her son. At the time the audience may not be aware that the man they see is Nawal’s lost son, but she knows who he is and accepts his brutality as her punishment for abandoning him. Only at the end of the film does the meaning of the sign on his foot disclose the truth of Nihad’s birth both to the twins and to the audience.


§6.1 In both works, the characters are forced by some external action to seek out their pasts. Jeanne and Simon always thought of their mother as an enigma who never spoke about her life in Lebanon before she immigrated to Canada. This is how online casino works if you are looking to play casino online from usa as explained in this US casino site. The two letters in Nawal’s will are what force the twins to finally try to understand their mother. Like Oedipus, the twins make one painful discovery at a time: Nawal’s lover was murdered by her brothers, she was forced to give up her baby, she suffered rapes and torture in prison for 15 years, she gave birth to twins out of this torment, and finally, her rapist was her son. The audience watches Jeanne and Simon through each fresh horror and experiences the shock of knowledge with them. These individual, linking realizations drive the film in the same way that it drove the plot of Oedipus the King.

§6.2 In the play, Oedipus not only goes through his own personal discoveries—he is Laius’s murderer, Laius and Jocasta are his biological parents, and he has four children with his mother—but he is also brought down from his hubris. At the beginning of the play, he mocks the prophet Teiresias for failing to know the identity of Laius’s murderer and for his blindness.Teiresias responds, “You have your eyes but see not where you are in sin… Do you know who your parents are?” [4] Oedipus’s arrogance is part of what informs the audience’s view of him. Ironically, at the end of the play, he will be as blind as Teiresias. However, it is when Oedipus is blind that he sees his past errors. Here the themes of sight and discovery are conflated.

§6.3 None of the characters in Incendies are arrogant, but this absolves them of blame. Although Oedipus and Nihad both committed their crimes unwittingly, a modern audience would be more sympathetic to Nihad’s plight. This sympathy adds to Nihad’s tragedy and, unlike Oedipus, he does not learn about his history through his own search. Jeanne and Simon simply hand him his mother’s letters and leave him to their contents, alone. This is a nice segue to the second major theme of reconciliation.


§7.1 In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is alone in his search for the truth and, once he discovers it, is the only one to accept responsibility. His wife and mother Jocasta realizes the truth before he does and relieves herself of responsibility by committing suicide. The fact that he takes the blame for actions beyond his control makes the blind and tortured Oedipus a hero at the end of the play.

§7.2 This heroism can be recognized in Nawal, as well. Nawal and Jocasta fill the same maternal role, but that is where their similarities end. The distinction between the two mothers is rooted in how each woman handles the knowledge that her son is also the father of her other children. By killing herself, Jocasta forces her son to bear the guilt, alone. Nawal knew that Abou Tarek was her beloved Nihad, but kept this information to herself. She endured decades of private suffering for the sake of her children. Only after her death does she deem it necessary for her children to know the truth. Jeanne and Simon learn the truth, together, and have each other for comfort. Nihad is alone in his reconciliation but is also finally afforded the opportunity to be with his mother, even if it is at her grave. Most importantly, Nawal bore all the responsibility for the past. Nihad, Jeanne, and Simon have to reconcile themselves to these horrors but are at least absolved from guilt.

§7.3 When Jeanne and Simon deliver Nawal’s letters to Nihad at the end of the film, it is apparent that she loved her son and did not blame him for the incest and rape. With the two letters, Nawal addresses the two personas of the torturer and the son. To the torturer, she taunts “you won’t recognize [Jeanne and Simon] because they are beautiful. But they will recognize you.” She ends this letter with a warning that “all are silent before the truth.” The tone of this letter is decidedly cold.

§7.4 Contrast this with the letter to “the brother.” “You are beautiful,” she writes, “I wrap you in tenderness my love. Take solace, for nothing means more than being together“. With these two letters, the duality of the father/son character is highlighted. Abou Tarek is more than a torturer and Nihad is more than a son. Nawal accepted this being because she recognized her role in his corruption. This is another branch of the reconciliation theme—accepting two personas in one being—which Nawal, Jeanne, and Simon face.

The Classical Tradition

§8.1 Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex is centuries old, but continues to show its influence on modern art forms, like film, in Incendies through its inverted structure and universal themes. Denis Villeneuve engages with the structure and content of the Oedipus in order to create a contemporary work that is rooted in classical method.[5]

§8.2 In the case of Incendies, however, there is an important difference. Oedipus Rex is a tragedy in which Oedipus accepts responsibility for the parricide and incest, despite how repulsive these acts are. Incendies presents a different ending. It contains the same horrible errors and one family’s quest to discover their past, but instead of mere tragedy, the film presents a love story. Nawal demonstrates her love for Nihad by accepting responsibility for the past and the two personas that Nihad embodies. In other words, she accepts that one plus one can still equal one.


Fine, Marshall, “Live from Sundance 2011: Day 2,” Huffington Post, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-fine/live-from-sundance-2011-d_b_812542.html (18 February 2012).

Incendies. DVD. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Montreal, Canada: Micro-scope, 2011.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Translated by David Grene. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942).


Note 1
Marshall Fine, “Live from Sundance 2011: Day 2,” Huffington Post , January 22, 2011, accessed February 18, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-fine/live-from-sundance-2011-d_b_812542.html.

Note 2
The word “Oedipus” means “swollen foot” in Greek.

Note 3
The riddle was “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?” Oedipus answered “A man, who crawls on all four limbs as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.”

Note 4
Sophocles, Oedipus the King , trans. David Grene (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942), Lines 413-415.

Note 5
Admittedly, this creative re-engagement with Oedipus the King is indirect since the film Incendies is primarily based on Mouawad’s play. Although “Scorched” is the link between Oedipus the King and Incendies , it is not the focus of this paper. Indeed, that would require a completely separate investigation.

3 Responses to From “Oedipus” to “Incendies”

  1. Thanks for this excellent review. There was a point to be clarified: I gather Marwan did not know for decades (as Erin puts) that her rapist was her own son. She became aware of this, only when she saw her son at the pool, and very happy to find her son, suddenly noted that he is also her rapist (which led to her death). The suffering Marwan was bearing for decades (without telling any to her children) was because of other miseries of her life.

    If Marwan knew that her rapist was also her son, she could not get shocked to death when she saw her son for the first time at the pool. She would get shocked to death at the prison (if she could see the heel of her son at the prison). Plus, if she knew it from decades ago, the final pool scene would become pretty moot.

  2. Plus, if she had seen his heel at the prison, she could easily yell at him saying that she was his mother, and call him by his real name, to prove it. So I believe she became aware of this horror only at the poolside.

  3. I agree with VictorXSTC. She was left speechless at the poolside after making the discovery, and therefore, became ‘silent before the truth’.

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