DENIS VILLENUVE IS A PROVOCATEUR. He doesn’t shy away from what some might call sensitive subject matter. Rather, he seems to gravitate toward it, not merely content to show the horrors of the world but insisting on rubbing our faces in them. In Maelström (2000) he thrust viewers directly into a graphic abortion scene that went from the operating table to the incinerator, all to the jaunty tune of “Good Morning Starshine.” His latest film, Polytechnique, doesn’t need such a deliberately incendiary hook. Twenty years after, the wounds of the Montreal Massacre are still fresh enough for a dramatization to generate automatic controversy.
The opening shots juxtapose the banality of the everyday with the screaming terror particular to December 6, 1989, before warning the viewer that while the film may be based on the accounts of survivors, all of its characters are purely fictional. This is supposedly done for the well-being of the victim’s families, and while I don’t doubt the director’s sincerity, I wonder how concerned he was with the well-being of his audience, whose memories of the events he never fails to exploit.
The film is in black and white, apparently in order to give a timeless feel (which works surprisingly well), but it also makes the bloody carnage more palatable. (Hitchcock used the same trick in Psycho.) Pools of blood lose their vibrancy in black and white, instead resembling Rorschach ink blots that only become red through our own mental collaboration. Black and white photography has a tendency to foreground the film’s inherent artifice, to announce its status as ‘art.’ However, Villeneuve mostly avoids the chiaroscuro palette common to film noir, instead opting to stay within shades of grey—both aesthetically and morally.
When asked by a journalist if he thought it was appropriate to make a film about the Polytechnique shooting, Villeneuve responded, “It all depends on what you do with it and what you want to say about it.” Curious, then, that he provides no insight whatsoever into the attacker’s motivations, effectively leaving our collective knowledge at a stalemate. Marc Lépine’s claim that feminists ruined his life is merely stated, subject neither to question nor elaboration; in fact, when one female student questions Lépine’s characterization of her as a feminist, he shuts her up permanently before she can finish her thought. (Whether this exemplifies Lépine’s lack of interest in this question or Villeneuve’s is debatable.)
Lépine, billed in the credits simply as “the killer,” is shockingly one-note, as Villeneuve repeatedly mistakes close-ups with character development. Maxim Gaudette’s performance seems without affect by design, but it’s an obvious choice that doesn’t make watching the character interesting, although there is one moment wherein Gaudette breaks the fourth wall that is chillingly effective.
If the film has a message, it might be that Lépine’s simple anti-feminism was and is not limited to him. The protagonist (played by Karine Vanasse, also a producer) is damaged not only by Lépine’s killing spree, but also by the institutional sexism of the École Polytechnique: in a melancholy voiceover, she laments, “He is dead, I am alive. He is free, I am not.” Certainly this is indicative of a larger social problem of which Lépine was merely one instance, but Villeneuve seems more interested in reinforcing the gender dichotomies that lead to sexism rather than undermining them. As such, he ultimately fails to get at the root of the issue: he may be a provocateur, but what he’s really saying is downright conventional.
It’s easier to read the film on a purely aesthetic level, but surely aesthetics will only be an issue for most viewers insofar as they have an impact on the film’s ethical position: as Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “Every tracking shot is a moral judgment.”
POLYTECHNIQUE is now playing in Montreal in both French and English versions.
Dru Jeffries is a Ph. D. student in Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University.