There is often debate over what real-life events should and should not be covered on film. Regardless of whether the subject is war, genocide, rape, or murder, the fact that it is based on actual events takes away from the escapist element of cinema. This is why films, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, often face a slew of harsh criticisms even before they are released. While some may feel that making a film based on real-life tragedy is insensitive to the victims and their families who lived through it; if done right, these films can serve as a reminder of how important it is to never forget what mankind is capable of.
Polytechnique is a dramatization of the 1989 Montreal Massacre where Marc Lépine (Maxim Gaudette) killed 14 female engineering students, and wounded 14 other people (including 4 men), at the Polytechnic School of Montreal. The narrative of the films follows three individuals on that deadly day and the impact the massacre had on their lives. After the startling opening, we are introduced to Lépine as he is prepping his semi-automatic weapon and preparing his suicide note. Lépine’s note reveals his deep hatred of the feminist movement and how he felt women were destroying man’s role in society. The second person of note in the film is Valerie (Karine Vanasse), an engineering student who is struggling to overcome the confines that come with being a woman in a male dominated profession. Lastly we meet Jean-François (Sébastine Huberdeau), an engineering student who initially thinks that getting a grasp on the course material would be the hardest thing he would have to deal with on this day.
The film is sparse on dialogue but extremely powerful. Director Denis Villeneuve provides just enough dialogue to make his characters rounded enough for us to care about. All it takes is a few well chosen scenes to give us all we need to know about Valerie and Jean-François. The killer never really utters a single word in the film. All of his dialogue comes courtesy of the “voiceovers” when he is writing his suicide notes. Villeneuve skillfully uses other avenues, such as a class presentation on entropy, to provide a better understanding of Léger’s unstable nature.
While the actors do a terrific job in the film, it is Villeneuve who deserves the most praise. His previous films, 32nd Day of August on Earth and Maelstrom, one of my all-time favourite Canadian films, already proved that Denis Villeneuve was a talented director. Yet Villeneuve has truly outdone himself with Polytechnique. The film is both startling and beautiful all at the same time. Villeneuve’s film, similar to another stellar 2009 film, Hunger, is artistic without sensationalizing the horrific event.
I am sure many will see similarities in tone to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which I saw at TIFF. a few years back, but I think Polytechnique far surpasses that film. Villeneuve’s film, similar to the Montreal Massacre itself, will stay in our conscious for many years to come. Polytechnique is easily one of the best films of 2009.