Note: this review contains some spoilers!
As two utterly bored students photocopy notes in a university work room, rapid gunfire cuts one of the students down, and as the second wanders in shock away from the camera, blood stains her hand and clothes, and the film’s simple title card fades up, making it clear Denis Villeneuve’s account of Marc Lepine’s insane suicide mission, which left fourteen innocent women dead at Montreal University’s Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, is going to be a grim, stark docu-drama, and that pre-credit scene is just a sample of the physical and emotional carnage set to unfold.
The first shooting is also one of several angles Villeneuve (Maelström) and writer Jacques Davidts use to capture the known facts and witnessed accounts of Lepine’s final day. Interwoven are fictional character strands of two women caught in the firestorm, Valerie (Karine Vanasse, who also co-produced) and Stephanie (Evelyne Brochu), as well as one classmate who leaves with the rest of the men, after which Lepine briefly holds the women hostage before mowing them down with a semi-automatic rifle.
Using fictional names (Lepine remains unnamed), Polytechnique nevertheless captures the harsh terror of being caught in a horrific situation as well as being a strong statement against violence towards women. Lepine was a nutbar who managed to bring an assault rifle to school in a garbage bag and murdered women because he singularly attributed his failings in life to feminists; using a crazy flip of an anti-immigrant stance, he blamed women for taking jobs away from men, and ruining man’s stature and dominance in society.
Villeneuve nor actor Maxime Gaudette never position Lepine (billed as The Assassin) as a wronged or misunderstood soul that could’ve been saved early on through some intervention; admittedly, the film’s mostly restricted time-frame to one day pretty much negates any investigation of Lepine’s past, but there’s no grand scene of rage or stylized montage that renders Lepine’s assault like an action sequence.
Kind of echoing Kurt Russell’s breakout role as sniper Charles Joseph Whitman in The Deadly Tower (1975), Gaudette stays with the character’s design of a bland, nondescript, self-absorbed loser by underplaying rage and inner torment, while Villeneuve trains the camera on almost banal nuances.
One could argue these small insignificant moments are padding in a simple script that needle drops into one day without any pre- or much post-analysis, but that’s not fair; the characters are somewhat archetypal if not symbolic – villain and victims and heroes – but it’s that interplay between the banal and the chaotic that gives the Polytechnique such raw power.
It’s what Paul Greengrass accomplished (more chronologically, of course) in United 93 (2006), where that film begins as the 9/11 terrorists board the plane they plan to use as a guided missile, and ends as their plan is foiled by the heroic deeds of the doomed crew and passengers.
But Villeneuve seems to know that there’s an inherent danger in glorifying rage through the dramatization of a kill scene: it is action-oriented, and mandates a film technique that heightens drama. The solution is to continually play with moods, both visual and aural, and play with our expectations of the docu-drama / true crime genre.
The horrific opening scene is followed by the introduction of the two fictional students, Valerie and Stephanie, in the engineering class; their lives are contrasted by Lepine’s morning preparations, which include leaving notes, cleaning up his room, and stocking his car with the assault gear he’s clearly going to use hours later.
When Lepine enters the classroom and orders the men to leave, the first story strand follows fictional classmate Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau), who seeks help and the tries to return to the class, only to find the girls already dead. The film then does a brief flash-forward to show how well Jean-François copes with the memories of that day before flipping back to the room and following another story strand involving one survivor, Valerie.
Whereas Jean-François was used to follow Lepine, firing upon cafeteria and lecture hall students, Valerie’s story is part aftermath, offering a slight postscript to the massacre. Her story is cleverly compacted in several post-event montages that show a woman reclaiming her life after physical therapy, of achieving professional goals she earned on her own, and her personal triumphs likely to be clouded over by the memories of Lepine’s actions.
Villeneuve keeps audiences on edge by initially showing only glimpses of Lepine’s carnage, and when we’re arguably lulled into a sense of security by having the gunfire and any onscreen deaths audibly blurred and editorially omitted, the return to Valerie’s storyline in the classroom with Lepine comes at audiences like a ferocious salvo: there’s perhaps three or four key shots in the sequence, but the brutality isn’t tempered.
Bullets are fired, a line of bodies jerk and fall back, and the gunfire creates an almost misty, acrid vapour. It’s a sequence that is pivotal to the film because it’s probably the key moment where those audience members viewing Polytechnique as edgy entertainment ought to be affected by Lepine’s monstrous misogyny. Villeneuve does get a bit heavy in Lepine’s suicide scene in another classroom – his blood co-mingling with the blood of the ‘feminist’ he loathed and shot down – but the abruptness and simplicity of the mass classroom killing shows violence without glorification.
A major reason Polytechnique has such resonance is Pierre Gill’s extraordinary cinematography. It’s a beautiful fusion of grainy documentary style with ‘scope compositions, and the decision to use black & white film genuinely adds to the film’s emotional, if not factual authenticity – something director Richard Brooks achieved in his own non-linear crime drama, In Cold Blood(1967); in both productions, the brutality towards innocents was captured by placing the camera awfully close to the characters, and by creating a horrible sense of dread in telling us the details of an ugly crime (verbally or through flash edits) long before the killings are shown in detail.
Gill’s camera captures the mundane aspects of university life, as well as the underground bunker classrooms typical of late sixties / seventies Brutalist design; these rooms were rendered by architects as soundproofed, windowless pockets where students could learn without any peripheral distractions, but like the cavernous hallways and tunnel-like escalators, they unintentionally became death traps; only the cafeteria students were able to escape en masse from the windows shattered by Lepine’s gunfire.
More placid images in the film – the morning snowfall, or Jean-François’ later riverfront scene – function as neutral visuals that often precede or belie some imminently awful drama; one lengthy scene has Lepine amusingly breathing on his Bic pen to keep the ink flowing so that he can finish writing his rambling manifesto in his snow-covered, chilly car before stocking his pockets with full rifle magazines and heading inside the university.
Gill’s camera is very fluid, and there are some beautiful shots of flowing movement in sync with the minimalist music score. Most of the music is played on solo string, or subtle tonal shades, and fits Villeneuve’s design of an impressionistic, docu-drama film that places the viewer at arm’s length to the victims.
Polytechnique was filmed in English and French, and while some might feel some authenticity was lost by having the actors speak their lines in English, the dual language versions make the film accessible to more fickle Anglophones who loathe subtitles, and will give the film and its message deserved attention.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan