Denis Villeneuve had a tough task in putting on film the story of the mass shooting at Ecole Polytecnhique in Montréal in 1989. In a country with few mass shootings, the 1989 tragedy made a large impact on Quebec society and the province's approach to guns. The shooter primarily targeted women in the mass shooting that killed 14 women and injured 10 women and 4 men.
Villeneuve shot Polytecnhique in black and white. He brings us into the lives of two young women as they start that fateful day. Valerie (Karine Vanasse) and Stephanie (Evelyne Brochu) are roommates getting ready to go to school.
The story guides us through what women have to go through as a visible contrast to the anti-feminist views of the shooter. The first time we see Valerie, she is shaving her legs on the edge of the bathtub. She is dressing carefully for an internship interview.
We see Valerie's interview where she is asked a question about having children, which has nothing to do with the engineering degree for which she is studying.
Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau) is a male friend of Valerie and asks to borrow her notes.
Once the shooter arrives, the story narrows down to Valerie and Jean-Francois and tells their perspective. The shooter goes into the engineering class where Valerie, Stephanie, and Jean-Francois are all sitting and divides the class by gender. The women are forced to stay while the men are forced to leave.
The film takes us through the incident, then the film delves to tell the story and fate of Valerie and Jean-Francois.
We also see The Killer (Maxim Gaudette), his only identification, start his day, including a voiceover of his suicide note.
The violence and blood are pretty real. The violence isn't played up; the subtlety of everything is very real and a little frightening.
Villeneuve hauntingly takes us back to the classroom where the killer says why he is targeting women. We see the impact of the incident that sparked suicides among some of the survivors.
The film reminds us that while characters and situations are fictionalized, there are a lot of details in the film as to what happened on December 6, 1989 in Montréal.
The film, when released in 2009, was a concern over telling the story on film. To Villeneuve's credit, the film is not sensationalized. We see human portrayals of lives cut way too short.
A pleasant but surprising decision in terms of the release of the film was to shoot versions in French and English, so no subtitles are used. Villeneuve made the decision hoping that English-language speakers would find seeing the film to be easier.
The film does not cover the lasting impact on Quebec and Canada with guns. The mass shooting sparked legislation, especially the long-gun registry. The Harper Government got rid of the long-gun registry. Quebec was the last province to fight that and wanted to start its own registry based on the federal registration information.
Americans who deal with that country's many mass shootings with "thoughts and prayers" would be a welcome audience for this film. Often, mass shooting victims are treated as numbers as opposed to real people. The end of Polytechnique takes us through the names of those who lost their lives that day, simply for being at university and for their gender. Real people whose lives were cut short in this tragedy.
This film will not be for everyone. For those who have seen Villenueve's "American" films but not his French-Canadian work, this film and Incendies would be a good start.
video credit: YouTube/Pierre Gill
photo credit: Polytechnique film