Polytechnique (2009) dir. Denis Villenueve
Starring: Maxim Gaudette, Karine Vanasse, Sébastien Huberdeau
Almost everyone in Canada of a certain age remembers where he or she was when they first heard about the Montreal Massacre. That day, Dec 6, 1989, a disgruntled and unstable young man, with hateful misogynistic fervour, took a gun into Montreal Polytechnique University and killed 14 female engineer students and injuring 14 more, before killing himself. It was an event not unlike the Columbine tragedy, or 9/11, which brought the nation together as every year since, on its anniversary, Dec 6 is commemorated as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
All these years later, a cinema version of this story has been produced. With careful trepidation Denis Villeneuve's film “Polytechnique” pays respect for the victims without sacrificing the needs of storytelling, creative license, and art.
With a tragedy so recent and as yet undocumented, there was really only one way to tell the story. Thus Villeneuve uses the two best examples, Gus Van Zant’s “Elephant” and Paul Greengrass’ “United 93”, combining tones of dramatic realism and artful meditation for a unique mixture which avoids imitation.
Immediately Villenueve’s use of black & white, seems just the right visual aesthetic. With B&W, the blood used on screen looks black, an effect which retains the startlingly intensity without overwhelming the audience with gore.
To show the events of the day Villeneuve follows the movements of two students, one female and one male as well as the shooter. We see the mundate real world details of their routines, getting up in the morning, eating breakfast, getting dressed, walking to school, conversing with friends. On this day Valerie (Karine Vanasse) is going to an interview with a faculty head looking to transfer into Aeronautical Engineering, a field which the administrator curtly explains is a difficult program for women. The demeaning statement which shocks and angers Valerie introduces the hateful motivations of the unnamed shooter.
When Villenueve follows the shooter (Maxime Gaudette) into the school we know his motivations from seeing his suicide note being written earlier in the day – a very specific anti-feminist mind-set. Where this comes from, we don’t know, but it’s hateful enough to premeditate his multiple murder-suicide. The violence in the school is shown with uncompromising systematic realism as Villenueve follows the man through the halls, barely talking, just pointing and shooting.
The third point of view is a young male friend of Valerie's, Jean-Francois (Sébastien Huberdeau), who's forced to leave the room when the shooter divides one of the classes of students into male and female. We watch as his conscience commands him to retrace his steps back into the warzone to find and save his friend.
The only piece of artificiality unfortunately is the English-language version currently playing in English Canadian theatres. The film was dually shot in both official languages, but knowing that the Polytechnique was a French-language school at times took me out of the realism of the film. I completely understand the need for an English version, as it will certainly help penetrate the American market, but as a Canadian I did not want, nor need, to see the English version of this story.
This creative decision aside, Villeneuve has done this story right. Villeneuve’s statement is made complete with his emotional third act, which shows the audience the lingering effect of violence on those involved, and how the Montreal Massacre has both traumatized lives and inspired them.