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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Polytechnique (2009)

* * * *

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Maxim Gaudette, Karine Vanasse, Sebastien Huberdeau

Mass murder is of course horrific under any circumstances but there is something particularly scarring about school shootings. What does it say about your city or your nation if the people in it aren’t safe to go to school? I was still in high school when the Columbine massacre took place and though I can’t remember that particular day, I can vividly recall the 1st anniversary because a rumour had gone around that some kids were going to use that day to recreate it. Consequently only about two dozen students showed up and walking through the building was like walking through a ghost town, it was so quiet. Polytechnique’s most startling quality is its silence, which seems to envelop everything and gives scenes an intensely nightmarish feeling.

For the most part the film takes place on December 6, 1989 when a gunman (Maxim Gaudette) – unnamed in the film so as not to glorify him – walked into the École Polytechnique de Montreal and gunned down 14 women. His targets were women, specifically those he assumed to be feminists, his suicide letter stating explicitly: “If I commit suicide today... it is not for economic reasons (for I have exhausted my financial means, even refusing jobs) but for political reasons. Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.” Through a voice-over the film reveals the full text of this note and this is as close as we ever come to understanding the killer. The film does not attempt to explain his actions but instead focuses on the effect of those actions on the people left behind in the aftermath.

The story is seen largely through two sets of eyes. The first is Jean-Francois (Sebastien Huberdeau), an engineering student who is close friends with two of his female classmates. The killer’s first stop on his rampage is their classroom, where he orders the men and the women to opposite sides of the room and then orders the men out. The men leave, none more reluctantly than Jean-Francois, who runs through the building to alert security to call the police. By this time the killer has moved on and shot-up the cafeteria and made his way into another classroom, killing more women and then himself. Jean-Francois behaves bravely, attempting to administer first aid to one of the wounded women while the killer is still roaming the halls and shooting, but he is wracked with guilt over having left the classroom in the first place and it ruins his life.

The other character is Valerie (Karine Vanasse), an engineering student who is severely injured in the attack but not killed. Though the film addresses the political element early through the killer’s note, it makes clear that his attitudes towards women are ultimately only part of a larger problem. Before the killer is even a blip on anyone’s radar, Valerie has an interview for an engineering internship during which the interviewer displays the kind of casual sexism that is still fairly common today, though not necessarily as openly stated. He expresses surprise at the area of engineering she’s chosen, declaring that women usually go in an “easier” direction. When Valerie explains that she’s always wanted to be an aerospace engineer, he clarifies that he meant easier in terms of raising a family and not in terms of intelligence or drive, which actually doesn’t make his comment better. While his attitude is of course nowhere near as harmful as the killer's actions, the fact that this attitude exists at all and that feminism exists, in part, as a response to it gives the killer a foundation for his hate.

Director Denis Villeneuve tells the story in a minimalist, no frills kind of way. When it comes to the killing spree, he uses only what’s known to be true and uses even these facts sparingly. For example, the killer is shown uttering his last words but the scene is muted so that we don’t hear them. The reasoning behind this, I would imagine, is the same as the reasoning behind not publicizing his name, which is to deny him agency. For similar reasons, the film is photographed in black and white to downplay the gore and sidestep the possibility of glorifying the killing spree. These are all the right decisions in this particular case and as horrific as the story is, it is told in a sensitive and powerful way. Polytechnique is a moving film that, despite its subject matter, ultimately ends on a hopeful note. It's a fitting tribute to the 14 slain women and the families they left behind.


Anh Khoi Do said...

Not a very easy film to watch, indeed. Obviously, Polytechnique is certainly one of the best historical dramas I've seen in my life. As a matter of fact, the film openly admits that cinema has some limits and this is why it's better to stick to what is known of this tragic day based on some research and some testimonies from the survivors. Moreover, I liked the use of a black-and-white cinematography for the film. Great review, by the way.

Norma Desmond said...

The black and white photography is outstanding. It seems odd to use the word "beautiful" in relation to a film with this subject matter, but there's no better word to describe its look.