Polytechnique *** 1/2
Directed By: Denis Villeneuve.
Written By: Jacques Davidts.
Starring: Maxim Gaudette (The Assassin), Sébastien Huberdeau (Jean-François), Karine Vanasse (Valérie), Evelyne Brochu (Stéphanie).
When used properly, there can be few sounds in the movies more jolting then a gunshot. In most action movies, hundreds if not thousands, of rounds of ammunition are expended, and we don’t feel a thing. That’s because the sound of the gunshots, for the most part, is turned down. The people being shot are meaningless bad guys. But in Polytechnique, each gunshot we hear is terrifying. From the opening scene which is simply a young woman using a photocopier, until we hear a booming gunshot off screen and see the woman’s chest explode, each gunshot we see and hear in Polytechnique hurts. When the bullet makes contact with flesh and bone, we feel the pain, and watch in stricken horror. This is what it is like to be shot.
On December 6th, 1989, a lone gunman walked into Montreal’s École Polytechnique with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle and went from classroom to classroom to library to cafeteria and opened fired. In all, he killed 14 people, and injured 14 others, before turning the gun on himself. Apparently the shooter was angry with feminists, who he blamed for ruining his life, and so he targeted women in the school. Of the 28 people he shot, 24 of them were women. All of the people killed were women. The new film by Denis Villeneuve tells the story of what happened that day.
The movie never gives the name of the shooter, and so neither will I. It portrays him as a sad, lonely, pathetic young man who seems incapable of dealing with anyone on a normal level. We’ve seen these types of characters in movies before, and we’ve probably known some in real life as well. If he had turned his rage solely inward, and simply killed himself, it would be a tragic story, but one that everyone forgot about pretty quickly. But because he decided to turn his rage outward, and specifically targeted women, the event he caused has become infamous in Canada. Every December 6th is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, because of him.
The movie is not an in-depth character study of the shooter, or anyone else for that matter. It simply tries to recreate what happened that day. We get a voiceover early in the film of the shooter reading part of his suicide note, and that is about all. He is angry with women, so he takes out his rage, as simple as that.
But the movie is not quite that simple. Villeneuve flashes between the stories of three students, only one of them being the killer. Another is Valerie (Karine Vanasse), a woman in the mechanical engineering faculty, who is applying for an internship, and has a professor state that it’s strange to have a woman applying for the position. Normally, they go with commercial engineering, because it’s easier. Although this man and the shooter are vastly different, they have both generalized women.
The other character is another male student, and a friend of Valerie’s. He’s there when the shooter bursts into the first classroom, orders all the men out, and then opens fire on the women (including Valerie). The guilt he feels for not doing something more to stop the shooting, even though there was nothing he really could do, devastates him.
In some ways, Villenueve’s film is not all that different from Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which fictionalized the Columbine Massacre, without judgment or without giving reasons for the attack. It simply looks at the pointlessness of it all. Shot in stark black and white (perhaps for the same reason why Scorsese shot Raging Bull in black and white – as all the blood would be too much to take in color), the movie draws you in from the first scene, and keeps you glued to your seat horrified for the next 76 minutes (it is a very short film).
But Villenueve’s film differs from Van Sant’s in one crucial way – and the difference is what makes Elephant a great film, and Polytechnique merely a very good one. In the film’s closing scenes, Villeneuve flashes forward and gives us the story of one of the survivor’s years later, as she is pregnant with her first child, and writes a note to the shooter’s mother. This voiceover tries to give meaning to everything that went before it – tries to give the audience some sense of comfort at the end of the film. And it strikes exactly the wrong note. Van Sant’s film provides no such easy moralizing or comfort, and as such it is haunting. Almost six years after I’ve seen, it still comes to mind. Polytechnique, while being a good film, shouldn’t have looked for meaning in an event that had no meaning. The shooter hated women, and took out his rage on them. And while we should never forget that, as I think the movie makes chillingly clear, there are some things that have no easy answer. This is one of those things.