Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique is a realistic and formalist reproduction of the École Polytechnique Massacre (aka the Montreal Massacre) of December 6, 1989. Villeneuve treats the subject with the utmost respect, and delivers a stark and beautiful rejection of all doctrines of hate.
Polytechnique assaults the audience quickly with a number of different stylistic choices. The bleakness of the subject matter is announced by the choice to shoot the film in black-and-white. Villeneuve establishes the world of the story through the monotonous workings of a campus Xerox machine, students copying notes and mingling around the study hall. An unseen assailant fires shots into the room, injuring many, but our perspective remains similarly flat and dour. The world is presented at face value, and we can’t discern any judgment coming from Villeneuve’s lens.
Utilizing quick jumps to transport us back in time, to earlier in the day, Villeneuve makes it clear early on that the film will unfold in a non-linear fashion. By delineating distinct points in time, he allows us to see scenes multiple times and from different perspectives. The most crucial scene in the film, in which The Killer begins his massacre, is shown from three separate viewpoints, each one permeated by different emotions depending on the perspective from which it is shot.
The main narrative switches between the perspectives of The Killer (Maxim Gaudette), a victim named Valérie (Karine Vanasse), and a male survivor, Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau ). Early on, we spend a great deal of time with The Killer as he writes his manifesto/suicide note to his mother and observe Valérie struggling to decide which clothes to wear for an engineering internship interview. Though seemingly mundane tasks, moments like these pay great dividend as the film progresses. Even when particular character arcs reach their resolution, we remain engrossed in the powerful story unfolding.
The actual story itself is fairly blunt, but Villeneuve does amazing things with it. Essentially, The Killer is convinced that the feminists are to blame for his failures in life, and is intent on punishing them for it. Hence, he targets women at the institute, demanding that all women move to one side of the room while allowing the men to leave. He executes a number of the women, and then wanders through the halls targeting more women, including murdering a female professor at the front of a class, before firing a bullet into his own head. The resulting carnage is even bleaker than normal thanks to the black-and-white, and when the film moves beyond the shooting in the third act, we feel fortunate to be allowed to escape. Throughout the film Villeneuve chills us to the bone, make us seethe with anger, and loosens the tears from our eyes interchangeably.
Despite the grisly and traumatic subject matter, Polytechnique is a strangely beautiful film. Hatred fuels The Killer’s attack, but all around him students run to aid each other, fear for each other’s lives, and experience immense survivor’s guilt for having left the women to their fates. The Montreal Massacre was a senselessly tragic event, and garnered responses which are still parroted today with the news of each new school shooting. Some were quick to write-off The Killer as a lone zealot, some claimed his motivations were a reflection of the misogynistic culture at large, and others believed it a pure act of mental instability. Villeneuve’s inclusion of garden-variety sexism early on in the film subtly suggests his answer, but we can’t be sure.
He does offer a possible respite from such wastefully ignorant hatred: a newly-pregnant Valérie writes a letter to The Killer’s mother, stating, “If I have a boy, I’ll teach him how to love. If I have a girl, I’ll tell her the world is hers.” Here, Valérie will focus on love, not hatred; on beauty, not horror; and on hope, not despair. Villeneuve’s position couldn’t be clearer – The Killer’s name is never mentioned, not even in the closing credits.
Polytechnique is an absolute treasure, challenging its audience with its bleak subject matter and unrivaled style. An emotional journey from beginning to end, the film is a reminder that love will always rise above tragedy.