Denis Villeneuve’s “Polytechnique” (2009)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Director’s Fortnight)

The 21st century has long been heralded as an optimistic era of transformative societal change, but two decades in, it’s clear that it will continue to be dominated by the regressive attitudes of the 20th.  The trend began as early as the waning hours of December 31st, 1999, when New Year’s Eve celebrations were tempered by fears of society-wide collapse driven by a poorly-coded computer bug. Obviously, that scenario didn’t pan out, but the conflicts of twentieth-century globalism quickly imposed themselves upon our hopes for a new, brighter era: September 11th, imperial occupations masquerading as wars of liberation, widening inequality, and debilitating economic recessions.  Even as of this writing, a global pandemic that threatens to surpass the scale of the 1918 influenza crisis has forced the world’s population to seek refuge indoors for the foreseeable future. “The new normal” is a phrase thrown around often these days, implying that the hope and progressive ambitions pinned to the dawn of the new millennium have been replaced by a deep, enduring state of existential dread, insecurity, and fear.

Of all the various scourges of this still-nascent century, perhaps no “new normal” is as aggravatingly avoidable as runaway gun violence.  Mass shootings occur with alarming regularity in America, and our utter inability to marshall overwhelming public sentiment into meaningful legislation has resulted in a climate of resignation, fatalism and inevitability.  We think of this scourge as uniquely American; gun control advocates breathlessly point to all the other countries who boast low shooting rates thanks to strict gun laws, while proponents doggedly stick to the text of the Second Amendment as if it was gospel.  Our neighbors to the north are often invoked in these sorts of arguments, held up as a prime example of common sense gun control that doesn’t come at the expense of individual freedom. Yet, it is Canada where the template for the modern-day American school shooting was forged. In a December 1989 event that still ranks as the country’s worst mass shooting in its history, a deranged young man driven by misogynistic antagonism towards the female engineering students of the Montreal Polytechnique School went on an unchecked shooting spree that left fifteen dead (including himself via suicide), fourteen more injured, and countless others with deep emotional scars.

Thirty years later, the French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve would recreate the event for his third feature, POLYTECHNIQUE (2009).  He had been away from cinema screens for nine years, raising his children at home until he found a project compelling enough to justify his return.  He had been approached by producer and actress Karine Vanasse, who had been lobbying to make the film for several years prior (1), and agreed with her argument that enough time had passed to appropriately address the event in a cinematic context, using it as a touchstone for a larger discussion about gun violence in a climate where school shootings were occurring in the USA with increasing regularity (2).  In reopening these national wounds to examine the trauma therein, the creative team — comprised of Villeneuve, Vanasse, screenwriters Jacque David & Eric Leca, and co-producers Maxim Rémillard, Don Carmody, and André Rouleau — knew they faced a veritable minefield of sensitivity and scrutiny. As such, they set about crafting a stark, hyper-focused storyline fractured into several viewpoints, through which the audience could experience and process the magnitude of terror on display.  For Villeneuve himself, POLYTECHNIQUE would be an opportunity to press his particular voice into the service of serious introspection, in exchange for catapulting his own artistic profile onto the cinematic world stage. 

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In recreating the full scope of that fateful day’s trauma, POLYTECHNIQUE splits its perspective into a triad of narrative figureheads. Vanasse herself plays Valérie, a mechanical engineering student who is up for a prestigious internship in the commercial aviation industry.  Her naturalistic performance benefits from a great deal of research conducted before the shoot, which included talking directly to the survivors and the family members of the slain women. One particular anecdote that would inform her performance came from a survivor who didn’t identify with the “feminist” label that the shooter affixed to his targets, but found that the ordeal was “the first time in her life she had to confront her femininity head-on” (1).  Vanasse clings to this sentiment in her portrayal of Valérie, projecting a deep feminine strength driven by optimism over the future— even as that future is suddenly thrown into immediate danger. Indeed, the triumph of hope over despair forms the through-line of Valérie’s story. By the time of her fateful encounter with the shooter, she’s already been made painfully aware of the liability that her womanhood possesses in her particular educational environment; an earlier scene finds an important interview quickly derailed by her interviewer’s casual misogyny, born of his inherent expectation that only men can seriously pursue a career in engineering.  It’s an illuminating episode that casts POLYTECHNIQUE as an examination of the full spectrum of misogyny — from seemingly-harmless indifference to outright hostility. Furthermore, it positions Valérie’s character as a direct repudiation to The Killer’s hateful manifesto: his actions are premeditated on the belief that his own ambitions in the field are disadvantaged by an imbalanced focus on diversity at the expense of merit, while her experience shows that, in the harsh light of reality, the exact opposite is true.

While cinema may be routinely described as an “empathy machine”, capable of presenting disparate viewpoints to illustrate a broader truth about the human experience, POLYTECHNIQUE’s decision to humanize The Killer himself by installing him as one of the story’s three figureheads feels gravely misguided considering the proliferation of gun violence in American schools over the last several years.  There’s a tendency in art & media to humanize our monsters; to probe their psyches in search of an explanation for the horrors they’ve unleashed on the world. In the process, however, they are raised up into quasi-mythological figures while their victims are anonymized. POLYTECHNIQUE has the good sense not to give its Killer a name, but it nevertheless endeavors to extend its empathetic gaze to the quiet, antisocial and militantly misogynistic young man who feels so aggrieved and threatened by members of the opposite sex that the only logical course of action is total extermination.  Villeneuve introduces this young man, played by Maxim Gaudette, writing up his manifesto in the bedroom of his dingy apartment with the self-congratulating bravado of a revolutionary. And yet, he just barely possesses the courage of his convictions, almost losing his nerve altogether and abandoning his plot at the last second. The humanity of his monstrosity is that he is an utter coward, unwilling to look inside himself and take personal responsibility for his perceived shortcomings. Instead, he projects his false sense of persecution onto an external “Other” that can be easily defined within the narrow confines of a conspiratorial mind— and who conveniently happens to be completely defenseless when he ultimately decides to act.  Gaudette’s committed performance aside, POLYTECHNIQUE’s excursions into his mental state compromises its primary focus on the victims— the source of the film’s visceral power. Considering that some critics initially faulted Villeneuve for not going deep enough into the Killer’s psyche, the now-archaic impression of this creative decision nonetheless illustrates how far the gun violence debate has evolved in the past decade.

As mentioned previously, POLYTECHNIQUE employs a fragmented non-linear structure, positioning Valérie’s story as the fulcrum upon which the other perspectives are balanced.  All roads lead to a single convergence: the Killer’s storming of a classroom in which Valérie, her friend & roommate Stéphanie (Evelyn Brochu) and Sébastien Huberdeau’s fellow male student Jean-Francois are in attendance.  The Killer separates the men from the women and commands the men to leave the room before proceeding to gun down the women. We see this event multiple times, each time from differing perspectives that reveals new information and reminds us of the fluid subjectivity of Villeneuve’s storytelling.  For a large chunk of the film’s middle section, Villeneuve diverges from his focus on the shooting to follow the character of Jean-Francois in the days and weeks following the massacre. We know very little about him prior to the shooting, but we do know he has a friendly (and possibly an unrequited romantic) connection to Valérie, which Villeneuve exploits to position the two as representative opposites.  If Valérie signifies hope in the face of unimaginable tragedy, then Jean-Francois is despair. A momentary — and very understandable — lapse in courage leads Jean-Francois to assign personal blame to himself for the loss of his classmates. At this point, Villeneuve hits pause on his minute-by-minute recreation of the shooting to follow Jean-Francois in the aftermath; we watch him grasp for a semblance of normalcy by visiting his mother in the countryside, only to find he ultimately can’t cope with this new, broken reality.  But, as the old saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn, and the bleak conclusion of Jean-Francois’ story doubles back into the pivotal classroom massacre, replanting our perspective into the character of Valérie so that we can witness the triumph of one’s recommitment to living life to its fullest.

At this relatively early point in Villeneuve’s career, one can see how his aesthetic evolves as he finds his truest voice.  His recent films have mostly conformed to a predetermined, monolithic visual style, but POLYTECHNIQUE serves as an example of form following function.  The most immediate aspect of its image, captured on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, is the black and white presentation— a somber reflection of serious subject matter that has the added bonus of depriving your garden-variety gorehound the thrill of copious bloodshed.  Working with cinematographer Pierre Gill, Villeneuve sheds the heavy-handed psychodrama conceits of MAELSTROM in favor of a naturalistic, quasi-documentary approach that favors a roaming, restless camera. Switching at will between handheld setups and stabilized tracking movements, Villeneuve and Gill create the impression of a subjective intelligence, ducking and weaving along with the students as they scramble for shelter amidst the chaos.  Production designer Roger Martin echoes this non-sensationalistic approach with an authentic period recreation that never calls attention to itself. Nothing about the costumes or the set dressing screams “1989”— a deliberate creative decision which, combined with the black and white photography, lends a timeless feel to the mise-en-scene that only reinforces its emotional resonance as a cautionary tale about the ever-present specter of gun violence.  A few diegetic needledrops — specifically, Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” and an obscure cover of “Tainted Love” — serve as our best indicators of POLYTECHNIQUE’s time period, but by and large, Villeneuve foregoes pre-existing tracks from the late 80’s in favor of a spare, atmospheric score by Benoit Charest. Charest’s cues, orchestrated primarily with the piano and violin, complements the picture without calling attention to itself, further reinforcing Villeneuve’s laser-like focus on the visceral terror of the experience.

Despite its near-180-degree turn from MAELSTROM’s decidedly-theatrical tone, POLYTECHNIQUE still provides a glimpse into the burgeoning thematic and artistic conceits that have since solidified into the backbone of Villeneuve’s unique aesthetic.  One of the few male directors with a particular interest in, and sensitivity to, female protagonists, Villeneuve uses POLYTECHNIQUE as an opportunity to explore the idea of femininity under siege. The Killer’s victims find themselves in his crosshairs solely for the simple — yet entirely nonsensical — offense of lacking a Y chromosome.  The film hammers home the helplessness of being targeted for such arbitrary reasons, showing us no shortage of images where the Killer passively sits back and lets the male students run away with their lives intact. It may be an extreme example of the injustices that women at all levels of society suffer on a daily basis, but it is nevertheless one that is occurring with frightening regularity.  Villeneuve’s ability to transform mundane environments into foreboding landscapes in seeming possession of a malevolent omniscience transforms the banal utilitarianism of an educational facility into a claustrophobic labyrinth of death. While the actual Montreal Polytechnique School availed its campus for Villeneuve’s use, he chose not to do so out of respect to the victims (3), instead conforming an alternate location better suited to his thematic pursuits.  Beyond his staging of the school as a literal shooting barrel, Villeneuve also shows us desolate urban housing projects and the rural exurbs covered in a heavy blanket of crisp snow— a reflection of the chilly economic conditions that fuel the Killer’s actions as well as a reinforcement of the film’s core theme of hope in the face of unspeakable bleakness. While Villeneuve’s somber approach defers to respectful realism, he does allow himself a few moments of artistic indulgence; nowhere is this more evident than his inclusion of two aerial shots, inverted along their Y axis so as to convey an abstract uneasiness and dread.  For example, a shot of snowy countryside as seen from the air seems less like we’re looking out the windows of a plane, and more like we’re being dangled upside-down from the fuselage. Another shot — the final one in the film — finds the camera pushing down a symmetrical school hallway, but the composition would suggest that we’re crawling on the ceiling— a visual manifestation of Villeneuve’s parting statement that these students have just had their worlds turned upside-down. Forever.

Initially released in Quebec before playing at the Director’s Fortnight program of the Cannes Film Festival, POLYTECHNIQUE proved that he hadn’t lost his artistic relevance in the nine years he’d been away.  Positive critical notices drove a healthy box office run, which then translated to a showering of awards. The Genie Awards — the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars — awarded POLYTECHNIQUE with wins in no less than nine categories, including Best Motion Picture.  In recreating one of the darkest chapters of Canada’s history with an understated style and grace, Villeneuve had managed to install himself at the forefront of the country’s film industry. No doubt the siren call of Hollywood was already beckoning, luring him away with the promise of even greater magnitudes of success.  However, he was already hard at work on his next project, having set it up once again with a Canadian production company. His ultimate migration to the American studio system was inevitable — and imminent — but in the meantime he would use his home-court advantage to reinforce the strong foundations that his first three features had built.

POLYTECHNIQUE is currently available as a high-definition stream via Amazon Prime.

 

Credits:

Produced by Karine Vanasse, Maxim Rémillard, Don Carmody, André Rouleau

Written by: Jacque David, Eric Leca

Director of Photography: Pierre Gill

Production Designer: Robert Martin

Editor: Richard Comeau

Music by: Benoit Charest

 

References:

  1. Via Wikipedia: Patriquin, Martin (26 January 2009). “The first big film about … Dec. 6, 1989”. Maclean’s. Vol. 122 no. 2. p. 48.
  2. Via Wikipedia: St-Pierre, Caroline (29 January 2009). “Polytechnique: le drame aurait dû être mis à l’écran plus tôt, dit Villeneuve”. The Canadian Press.

     3. Via Wikipedia: Wyatt, Nelson (13 May 2008). “Villeneuve says Cannes will be much-            needed break after editing ‘Polytechnique'”. The Canadian Press.