REVIEW: Polytechnique (2009)

On 6 December 1989 a 25 year-old man, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, entered Montreal’s École Polytechnique and murdered 14 women and injured an additional 10 women and four men. After 20 harrowing minutes, the shooter turned his rifle on himself and committed suicide.

Mass shootings can be like an open wound for a national culture, and artistic responses to these events can be risky, controversial endeavours. Australia suffered its own mass shooting event in Port Arthur in 1996, and Justin Kurzel’s 2021 film Nitram was a narrative film that gathered wide praise and condemnation for exploring the lead-up to the event. It turns out Montreal had its own feature film adaptation back in 2009, in Denis Villeneuve’s bleak and confrontational film Polytechnique.

While Kurzel focused not on the shooting but the circumstances that would lead to such an inexplicable act, Villeneuve tackles the shooting itself. The film only lasts for 77 minutes; any longer and it would likeable become unbearable. A killer prepares, his victims are introduced, and the violent repercussion of one man’s anti-feminist, mentally deranged rage plays out on screen. This is a sharply violent, deeply harrowing, and realistic screen experience. More than any other representation I have seen, Polytechnique places the viewer inside the experience. Some will find this film unwatchable, and fairly so. Others will condemn it for having been made in the first place – a point of view with which I cannot agree. This is hard-going stuff, but its impact has a social and moral purpose. It is not sensationalised, and it has not been geared for shock tactics. Instead Villeneuve exposes the proper horror of these senseless, murderous events. His film seems like a challenge for people to do something. By Polytechnique‘s conclusion all I could do was sit mystified at all of the states, counties, and school districts in the USA that seem more concerned their children would be exposed to sexual diversity than to be hunted down and killed by some anonymous hate-filled and angry shooter.

This is responsible filmmaking. Pierre Gill’s photography is entirely in black and white, which not only lends a stark visual beauty but also removes the visceral effect of the blood. It forces the audience’s attention from the physical horror to the emotional. They are not bodies lying on floors but lives that have been lost. Judicious use of music – Benoit Charest’s score is sublime – makes the film emotive but not manipulative. A non-linear structure enhances the focus on the people involved more than their actions. All characters have been fictionalised, and despite receiving permission to shoot at the real École Polytechnique Villeneuve elected to make the film somewhere else out of respect to the victims and survivors.

The film focuses on four key characters. Valérie (Karine Vanasse) is a final year engineering student interviewing for an internship. She and her best friend Stéphanie (Evelyne Brochu) are among the nine women initially held hostage by the killer. All of the male students are ordered out of the room at gunpoint. Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau) does what he is told, but later turns back – a choice that then questions the responsibility of bystanders during such events. Finally the film showcases the killer himself (played by Maxim Gaudette), both preparing and enacting his crimes. All four actors deliver superb performances. Gaudette in particular deftly handles his role, offering some insight into the killer’s motivations yet keeps things wisely stripped of any sympathy.

Polytechnique represents smart, challenging viewing. Fans of Villeneuve’s later, more popular films would do well to dig further into his back catalogue of works.

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