Cook and Walker on Polytechnique 11/04/2009
This article was originally published (with minor changes) in The Capilano Courier, and written in partnership with Kurt Walker, who writes at Walking in the Cinema.
Polytechnique, directed by Denis Villeneuve
One of the most horrific events in recent Canadian history was the Montreal Massacre of 1989. 14 women were shot down at the Ecole’ Polytechnique by a man, who also took his own life. This devastating act of misogyny is the subject of French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s new film; his first in 8 years. The movie follows three characters on the day of the shooting; including the killer and two innocent students.
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Walker: Let us get the elephants in the room out of the way, in this case the history that Polytechnique handles and a film, Gus van Sant's Elephant, which I expect us to refer to. Okay, so I have my problems with Polytechnique, but it is amazing that this film came out of the deprived cinema which our country sustains, and what’s astonishing is that its based on true events; which rarely is a good thing in terms of allowing the filmmaker creative freedom. But in this case, Villeneuve maintains creative authorship without losing the sincerity the subject matter demands.
Cook: Villeneuve certainly isn't bound to the event he is exploring. He uses this tragedy as a way of examining the casual misogyny in our culture, and its horrific consequences. The killer, who we spend quite a bit of time with in the film, is never closely analyzed, and is merely observed. The other two characters that are focused on are also handled in a very interesting way. There's a male character that is essentially the antithesis of the killer. He shows sensitivity towards women and in the midst of the shooting does as much as he can to help out. These two men, to my mind, are two sides of a coin, and represent our sex as one in dire conflict between love and hate.
Walker: Agreed. I have to compliment Villeneuve for structuring the narrative through the guide of figures as opposed to developed characters, which makes the subject matter all the more dominate. One of these figures is a young woman whose passion for mechanical engineering, has lead her to apply for an internship. In the application process the interviewer berates for her interest in a male dominated world. Villeneuve immediately makes a contrast with the perpetrator of the massacre and the victim, he makes a scale in which one side is hate and one side is a love which is undermined by a disillusioned culture. Villeneuve never intrudes with a cemented message, but this conflict, and various others that are scattered throughout the film, leave little room for interactivity: they are strikingly simple. This thematic simplicity is at times a benefactor, but was largely a detracting property of the film; basically, I'd say Polytechnique works best when it tugs at your heartstrings.
Cook: I wouldn't go so far as to say it's simplicity is detrimental; quite the opposite in fact. It knows what is too complex to try and tackle and what is obvious enough to make itself apparent.
I'm glad you brought up the job interview with the young woman. The way it is shown to us at first, we don't know if she got the internship or not. Basically, the interviewer expresses his concern that she will eventually bail out to raise a family, and comments that men are better suited for the position. Then it cuts to her crying in a bathroom stall, and it isn't until later when she tells her friend she got the internship, and had to hold off on mentioning her desire to have children. We then heartbreakingly realize that she was crying because she had to compromise her integrity in order to succeed. It is in ways like this that misogyny takes its toll in our culture. It sets our world out of balance, a truth that the filmmaking supports, as we notice the camera often finds itself floating about, unable to maintain equilibrium.
Walker: The cinematography is gentle. Villeneuve takes a fragile approach to the material, which constructs a memorable aesthetic in that the drama is properly matched with a camera: it refuses intrusion. The trajectory into the killer’s ideals and breakdown is briefly communicated in the opening moments of the film wherein the killer aggressively reads a suicide letter addressed to the world. Villeneuve maintains his distorted psyche by filming the halls of the Polytechnique with expressionistic camera movements: which is possibly my favorite feature of the film. Also, the choice of black and white fittingly derives from Villeneuve's obsession with matching and desensitizing. The film looks like an assemblage of newspaper clippings, which would of surely been the public’s eye into the event at the time. The black and white simultaneously dampens the effect of the immense violence that is displayed.
I'd consider Polytechnique a good Canadian film which makes mistakes by dipping into some mundane contrasts in ideologies, yet credit must be given to the fact that a film bound to a historical event has come out of Canada yet its artistic visions rarely falter.
Cook: I'm glad you champion this as a Canadian accomplishment, but even out of that context, Polytechnique is praiseworthy. It does pale in comparison to Gus van Sant's Elephant, a film that depicted a fictionalized version of the Columbine shooting. That movie was, as both Kurt and I agree, a masterpiece; but Polytechnique is looking at entirely different themes, and should be seen on it's own terms.
Villeneuve finds overwhelming despair within this tragedy, and ultimately in our culture. He also finds stark terror, which makes the scenes that actually depict the shooting almost unbearably intense and harrowing. Polytechnique is an admirable achievement, with an emotional resonance so affecting that I was nearly exhausted by the end. As much as I wholeheartedly recommend the film, I fear returning to it; within the classrooms and hallways of the Ecole’ Polytechnique, there is more pain than I can bear.
posted by adam cook