Denis Villeneuve Week – Day 2: “Polytechnique” (Canada, 2009)

Denis Villeneuve Week continues with the director’s first feature-length English-language film, Polytechnique (though the film was actually produced in both English and French, I will be reviewing the English film; Blu Ray editions contain both versions, if you’re sufficiently interested). The film is a realistic, formalist reproduction of the events of December 6, 1989, which would come to be known as the École Polytechnique Massacre (aka the Montreal Massacre). Villeneuve treats the subject with the utmost respect, and delivers a stark and beautiful rejection of all doctrines of hate. The trailer below offers a powerful sample of this great film:

This is pretty much what the whole film feels like.


Polytechnique assaults the audience quickly with a number of different stylistic choices from Villeneuve. First, the bleakness of the subject matter is intimated by the choice to shoot the film in black and white. Our first glimpse of this story seems to place us among the monotonous workings of a campus Xerox machine, as students copy notes and mingle around the study hall. An unseen assailant fires shots into the room, injuring many, but out perspective remains similarly flat and dour. The world is presented at face value, and we can’t discern any judgment coming from Villeneuve’s lens.

Then, we are clearly transported back in time to earlier in the day. While this could be confusing to the audience, Villeneuve is using this quick jump backwards to teach us that his story will unfold in a non-linear fashion by delineating distinct time points. This non-linear approach to story is played to great effect later in the film, where we see scenes multiple times and from different perspectives. The most crucial scene in the film, in which The Killer begins his massacre, is shown three separate times, and three separate emotions permeate the scene, depending on the perspective from which it is shot.

This is the final stylistic choice that Villeneuve makes early in the film: a willingness to switch between the perspectives of The Killer (Maxim Gaudette), a victim Valérie (Karine Vanasse), and a male survivor, Jean-François. Early on, we spend a great deal of time with The Killer as he writes his manifesto/suicide note to his mother, but also see Valérie struggling to decide which clothes to wear for an engineering internship interview. Later on in the film, this also pays dividends, as we remain engrossed in the story despite resolution of any particular character’s arc.

Armed with these stylistic choices, Villeneuve can chill us to the bone, make us seethe with anger, and loose the tears from our eyes interchangeably. The actual narrative is fairly blunt, and it is amazing what Villeneuve can do with it. Essentially, The Killer is convinced that the feminists are to blame for his failures in life, and is intent on punishing them for it. Hence, he targets women at the institute, demanding that all women move to one side of the room while allowing the men to leave. He executes a number of the women in this classroom, and then wanders through the halls targeting more women before murdering a women professor at the front of a class firing into his own head. The resulting carnage is even more bleak than normal thanks to the black-and-white, and when the film moves beyond the shooting in the third act, we feel fortunate to be allowed to escape.

Despite the grisly and traumatic subject matter, Polytechnique is a strangely beautiful film. Hatred fuels The Killer’s attack, but all around him students run to aid each other, fear for each other’s lives, and experience immense survivor’s guilt for having left the women to their fates. The Montreal Massacre was a senselessly tragic event, and garnered responses which are still parroted today after every similar event. Some were quick to write-off The Killer as a lone zealot, some claimed his motivations were a reflection of the misogynistic culture at large, and others believed it a pure act of mental instability. Villeneuve inclusion of garden-variety sexism early on in the film subtly suggests his answer, but we can’t be sure.  However, he does offer a possible respite from such wastefully ignorant hatred: a newly-pregnant Valérie writes a letter to The Killer’s mother, stating, “If I have a boy, I’ll teach him how to love. If I have a girl, I’ll tell her the world is hers.”  Here, Valérie will focus on love, not hatred; on beauty, not horror; and on hope, not despair.  Villeneuve’s position couldn’t be clearer – The Killer’s name is never mentioned, not even in the closing credits.

Like Maelström before it, Polytechnique absolutely cleaned up at the Genie Awards with 11 nominations and nine wins: best picture, director, leading actress, supporting actor, editing, original screenplay, cinematography, overall sound, and sound editing. This film is an absolute treasure, challenging its audience with its bleak subject matter and unrivaled style.

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