Polytechnique: An untimely but necessary meditation

Alanna Thain, Associate professor, Department of English
Alanna Thain, Assistant professor, Department of English

By Alanna Thain

In Denis Villeneuve’s new film Polytechnique, based on the Montreal massacre of 14 women on Dec. 6, 1989, three images describe a possible relation to life. The killer huddles in his car outside École Polytechnique, isolated from his surroundings in a self-imposed bubble, repeatedly breathing on a frozen pen to write a final note to his mother before unleashing his hatred on the women inside. A long tracking shot of the shattering ice along the St Lawrence River leads to an exhaust pipe taped in a car window and the suicide of Jean-Francois, one of the men sent out from the classroom where his female co-students would be murdered. Trapped in a circuit of poisonous despair, he seems to inhale the killer’s breath, unable to get out of that day’s terrible loop. Last, a tender image bookending the film: a woman’s hand holding a cigarette out an apartment window, then an interior shot of her smoking. In this familiar scene, exchanging inner and outer worlds, hot smoke and frigid air, the cold is at once painful and necessary. In the beginning of the film, it is Stéphanie who smokes as she anxiously studies for her exam, anticipating the end of term. At the end, it is Stéphanie’s roommate Valérie, a survivor of the massacre, smoking to soothe herself after nightmares wake her and make her violently sick.

Amid the anxious debates surrounding Polytechnique, the film itself – flawed but powerful – could easily be lost. The Polytechnique massacre, an event that refuses to be done with, lingers beneath the surface of our collective consciousness. I imagined people would be reluctant to see this film, but a theatre sold out on a Tuesday afternoon told me something else. Some have asked, why make Polytechnique when it doesn’t offer new insights into the why of the events themselves?

In fact, the film doesn’t explain the killer’s motivations, but raises the question of what caused his vision of woman to become so distorted by repeatedly presenting that vision as distorted – not sensationally, but as a refusal of direct contact. He spies on a female neighbour through a window, on his mother via a side view mirror from inside his car, and his scenes are accompanied by off-screen music, a sharp contrast to the late ’80s pop filling scenes of the students at Polytechnique, living in the moment.

Villeneuve’s film is not the first artistic attempt to deal with the massacre, but justifiably or not, the uncomfortable proximity to documentary realism, both in terms of fidelity to factual accounts of the event and the evidentiary pull of the film image itself, puts different demands on this type of intervention. Polytechnique does not give us the definitive version of what happened that day, except by stating the lack of debate at the moment of the murders in the classroom, a scene at the cold hard centre of the film.

Those events have been part of the public story for years (the separation of the men and women, sending the men away, the accusation that the woman are feminists and the much debated protest “we are not feminists”); none of that knowledge prepared me to actually see these events unfold in a few seconds. A woman barely begins to respond when the killer mows them down. It was truly shocking and necessarily brutal. For that moment alone, this film is worth seeing as an essential reminder of what Dec. 6 is about, why it still demands the response the killer refused. Villeneuve made many choices out of a desire to avoid sensationalism, such as shooting in black and white, but he needed to show that shooting as it happened.

Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, inspired by the Columbine massacre, Polytechnique unfolds events via an elliptical narrative structure. In Elephant, we dreadfully anticipate the violence, but when the same banal scene repeats again from different perspectives, we realize that events are not unfolding in real time, but have already taken place. All fantasies of change or intervention (a frequent motivation for making fiction films of public tragedies) fall away and we are left not asking what will happen, but how to respond. Elephant doesn’t entirely answer this question, but in asking charges the audience with an ethical responsibility.

Villeneuve’s film, although less successfully, does something similar, taking us up to the moment of the massacre and then sending us outside the classroom with a male student, beyond the events of the day, before returning to the moment of the first murders. In making visible the events inside the Polytechnique, Villeneuve necessarily asks how one might come out. This is at once the intention of the film and its limitation, where the film rings false in its narrative but true at the level of affective imagery.

It is not for nothing that Villeneuve is one of Canada’s most gifted contemporary filmmakers. Moments of affective grace and horror in Polytechnique do not diminish the tragedy, but speak to the complicated and contradictory ways in which we still live its effects. Polytechnique does resort to clichés: in the end, an unexpected pregnancy offers hope for a female survivor. While this gesture feels forced, other seeming clichés work: in the hallways during the shootings, a world turned upside down, the camera upends itself in response, taking flight along the ceiling where the glowing fluorescents are both the desire to flee and the reminder that there is no easy transcendence of this scene. Polytechnique is not a masterpiece but a flawed and worthy film in a minor key, an untimely and necessary meditation. If the terrible centre of the film is that brutal foreclosure of conversation in the classroom, Polytechnique accomplishes something not by being the final word, but in its desire to respond.

Alanna Thain is an assistant professor in the Department of English.