Polytechnique (2009)

Polytechnique first published by Little White Lies, as the 117th entry in my Cinema Psychotronicum column

In Canada, 1989 was a year that saw several victories for women’s rights and representation. On March 9th, the Supreme Court of Canada declared moot an appeal brought by anti-abortionist Joseph Borowski, and so in effect established a protection from litigation for women asserting their reproductive rights. On May 19th, the Pay Equity Act was introduced for public service employees. And on December 2nd, Audrey McLaughlin was elected head of the New Democratic Party, becoming the first female leader of a major political party in Canadian history. Yet with progress there often comes a backlash. On December 6th, Marc Lépine entered the École Polytechnique de Montréal – an institution which had twice rejected his enrolment applications – with a semi-automatic rifle, and murdered 14 women (injuring a further ten women and four men) before killing himself. A suicide note named ‘feminists’ as his express targets – and his actual rampage made it clear that in his mind this was a category encompassing any random women who happened to cross his path. It would be another twenty years before the feature film Polytechnique would attempt to address, and even to a degree to heal, this deep scar in the Canadian conscience. 

Dramatisations of recent true crimes demand a very special kind of sensitivity, and this early film from Denis Villeneuve – only his third feature, following August 32nd on Earth (1998) and Maelström (2000) – is a textbook example of how to approach such materials responsibly. “Out of respect for the victims and their families”, as text reveals at the film’s beginning, “all characters are fictitious”, their experiences composited from survivors’ testimonies – and although the characters’ names have all been invented, closing credits duly list and commemorate the real victims. The killer (played by Maxim Gaudette) is never named, although almost the entire content of Lépine’s suicide note is quoted verbatim (in voiceover) to leave no doubt as to his misogynistic motives. His murders are presented in a blank, matter-of-fact, utterly unsensationalised manner that matches the bleak snowy exteriors and clinically institutional interiors of the Polytechnique – and out of respect, Villeneuve shot these scenes elsewhere, even though he had permission to film on site. A black-and-white format was adopted, in part to avoid highlighting all the spilt blood. Most importantly of all, the film’s focus is as much on the aftermath of trauma and recovery as on the atrocity itself.

“This was inevitable,” the killer writes in a letter that he leaves for his mother before embarking on his spree. That inevitability comes in several shades for the viewer. There is first the fact that the film has been reconstructed from real events both well documented and falling within living memory, and then that it opens in medias res with two young women suddenly being shot while photocopying papers at the Polytechnique. From then on, as the story jumps back a little and follows the differing perspectives not just of the killer but also of some students obliviously going about their daily activities, there is a tension built into every scene, bringing a grim fatalism to this chronicle of deaths foretold. The killer’s first shootings take place in a lecture room, where he has interrupted a lesson concerning, significantly, entropy. Here the killer himself arrives as an entropic force, the random disorder in a closed system and the Elephant in the room, bringing about (as the lecturer puts it) “irreversible degradation to the point of self-destruction.” His is a violent expression of tensions – along gendered lines – present in Canadian society, and his first move is to divide the room into girls on one side and guys on the other (as he is only interested in killing the women).

Valérie (Karine Vanasse)

Running counter to the killer’s narrative trajectory are two other stories. Engineering student Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau) is quick to grasp what is going on and to risk his life helping others left in the killer’s wake, but struggles with a crippling sense of survivor’s guilt. The decency of ‘J-F’, his incredulity before the horrors unfolding in the Polytechnique, and his self-imperilling efforts to tend or rescue victims, all represent an alternative kind of masculinity to what the killer embodies. Meanwhile J-F’s fellow student Valérie (the film’s co-producer Karine Vanasse) carries the film’s scars, and its hopes for a better future. Shortly before she becomes caught up in the shootings, we see Valérie being interviewed for a mechanical engineering internship. Her interviewer (Pierre Leblanc), a man from the old school, greets her with casual male chauvinism, suggesting that she might prefer to work in civil engineering, which is “easier for raising a family… we’re looking for candidates who won’t quit.” It is an offensive remark, showing precisely the inequalities which women must face in the workplace – but nonetheless Valérie gets the internship, not least because she is clearly the best engineer among her peers, helping both J-F and her roommate Stéphanie (Evelyne Brochu) with their course work. Through Valérie, we see the possibility of progress and change, of a future generation that is better than the past. She is the very opposite of what the killer, a failure who describes himself in his suicide note precisely as “rather backward-looking by nature.” Offsetting the hateful suicide note that the killer writes at the film’s beginning is a letter that Valérie writes to the killer’s father at the film’s end – a missive full of pain, but also of love and hope. 

Here Valérie gets the apparent last word, as the positive counterargument to the killer’s negative position. Yet this is an ongoing dialectic, and if the film was ever intended to exorcise the tragedy of the École Polytechinque Massacre, the tensions that it presents, and the systemic entropy that it portrays, remain harrowingly relevant in our own age of misogynistic rampages – like the 2014 Isla Vista killings and the 2018 Toronto van attack, both carried out by self-identifying ‘incels‘. Villeneuve made two versions of the film concurrently, one in French and the other in English, both of which are presented on this BFI release, offering a dispiriting diptych of progress and its reactionary counterforce. Also included is Judith Plamondon’s documentary Polytechnique: Ce 1u’il reste du 6 décembre, narrated by Vanasse and released on the 30th anniversary of the massacre – which illustrates just how closely the feature film cleaves to what actually happened. 

strap: Denis Villeneuve’s true-crime drama sensitively reconstructs a misogynistic massacre in monochrome to address a national trauma

Anton Bitel