Polytechnique (Canada 2009)

It’s been 10 years since a director of small films and short films gave us Polytechnique, a full 15 years after his career started in the early 1990s. His last film bombed, but the two before it were astonishing - yep, Dennis Villeneuve was laboring in obscurity for 15 years, and in the next 10 he would direct Polytechnique, Incendes, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and his notorious bomb, Blade Runner 2049. I rank Sicario among the 10 best American films of this decade, and while there is no way its sequel Soladado can live up to the hype, it is filled with the kind of operatorkino fans of the original loved so much - the fact that they are bringing back minor character/scene-stealer Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan) is evidence of this being very much a fan service sequel.

[Forsing’s character is clearly based on Mike Vining, one of the original members of Delta Force and a U.S. military legend - I never served, have very few friends who did, I don’t go to gun shows and I have no family currently in the military, and even I know who Vining is.]

Polytechnique is something of an oddity - a small, black-and-white film based on the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, the worst mass shooting in Canadian history. The facts of the case tell much of the story of the film itself: a young man who’d grown to hate women and feminism took to the college’s campus, took a classroom hostage, divided the men and the women, asked the men to leave, and then shot all nine women, killing six. He moved from there to the cafeteria and another corridor, killing eight more women and shooting another 20 people before turning the gun on himself.

Villeneuve takes this material and divides it by three - he focuses first on the gunman, then on one of the women shot in the classroom, and finally on one of the young men who hesitantly left the classroom at gunpoint just before the women are shot.

There is a mundanity to the affair which is perceptive, especially considering the film preceded Dave Cullen’s book Columbine, the most thorough study into a school shooting I’m aware of. Cullen makes the point that Harris and Klebold could have killed many, many more people but after awhile, they both grew bored and instead killed themselves.

The shooter’s day is straightforward. He writes a note to his mom apologizing (we never meet her), then pens a quick manifesto/note of sorts blaming his problems and the world’s on feminism. From that point he stalls, presumably working up the never to do what he’s about to do, and then he goes about on his rampage as people flee and even the school’s security doesn’t seem to take the reports of a massacre seriously.

Next the focus is moved to the young man, who pauses before being the last guy to leave the classroom. As the shooter goes to work, he begins a mad dash trying to alert anyone and everyone of what is happening. The final five minutes of his story are the only ones that are out of place, primarily because Villeneuve places the young man’s actions so out of context it’s difficult to tell until it’s not when this part of the story is actually taking place.

Finally, the focus turns to one of the women. Her day begins with an interview for an. Engineering internship (and some good old-fashioned male sexism to go with it) before she meets up with her roommate to go to class.

Her story is the most compelling, and Karine Vanasse’s portrayal of her is nearly heart-breaking in its humanity. Vanasse is a prolific French-Canadian actress and her filmography is stunningly long for someone under the age of 40 - she seems to switch between film and television acting in a manner very few American actresses are afforded. Like almost all film codas, this one too was a bad idea (hers that ends the film, not the In Memoriam naming of the victims that appropriately starts the end credits).

As a rule, I’m not a fan of films based on or inspired by mass shootings. I’m not a “gun nut” in any sense of the term except for the fact that I am very much a 2A absolutist (yes this was in Canada which doesn’t have a 2A) and such film inevitably appeal to base emotions of viewers in much the same way that a good war film seems to get better the more it can demonstrate the horrors of war, which compelled Truffaut to note that it’s impossible to make an antiwar film that shows battle.

The closest American example to Villeneuve’s focus on mundanity is Gus van Sant’s Elephant, which was inspired by Columbine and which I did not enjoy. Polytechnique is a much better film, and it demonstrates some of the early directing finesse that turned Villeneuve into one of the hottest directors on the planet. For that alone, it’s worth your time.

Creede Kurtz

I write about the movies I see and a few other things.
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