I n the film Polytechnique, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Jacques Davidts have successfully woven two fictional characters' stories on a platform of a single violent act.
I n the film Polytechnique, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Jacques Davidts have successfully woven two fictional characters’ stories on a platform of a single violent act.
Centered on the actual events of December 6, 1989, when 14 young women were massacred at Montreal’s cole Polytechnique, the film takes the audience quickly down one character’s path, and with the crack of a rifle, snaps you back to a common point in time to follow another path. Filmed in black and white with little dialogue, the result is an interplay of thought and suspense that thankfully undermines any sensationalism normally associated with graphic violence.
The representation of a Canadian engineering school campus in December of 1989 is surprisingly real, from its dreary concrete and brick crowded common areas, where a young man can walk seemingly alone and invisible, to students spending hours at a bank of coin operated photocopiers. At first you want to compare the film with the actual events. But, with heart pounding you watch the story unfold from the edge of your seat, forgetting that you already know how it will end. When it does end, the sadness and grief is overwhelming as we are reminded of the actual victims and survivors.
Actress and producer Karine Vanesse plays the fictional Valrie, who along with her female classmates is separated from the male students and gunned down in a classroom. She alone survives, just as in real life one young woman in that classroom did survive her injuries.
Valrie is burdened with a feminist stereotype prevalent in the 1980s. The film accurately portrays that female engineering students did not want to be labeled as feminists but were quickly realizing that they would have to fight to pursue their chosen career paths.
In his portrayal of Jean-Franois, one of the male students ordered out of the classroom, Sbastien Huberdeau presents the face of post-traumatic stress syndrome and survivor’s guilt.
You would expect a third story, that of the young man with the rifle, but it’s not there. Played by Maxim Gaudette, the gunman remains nameless throughout the film and is appropriately listed as “the Killer” in the credits. To demonstrate that the killer’s actions are not random or provoked, there is only his purposeful stare, his downturned mouth, and a voiceover narrative of him reading a letter in which he says he hates feminists.
The film closes with Valrie, perhaps five years after the massacre, appearing to have achieved her career goals. She is shown reviewing plans, engaging in conversations about projects with male colleagues, and then facing a new challenge of motherhood as she finds herself pregnant.
In the last scene Valrie is writing a letter, presumably to the killer’s mother. In it she shares a message to mitigate similar acts of hatred and violence in the future and to foster strength and conviction in young women. She says of her unborn child, “… If it is a boy, I will teach him to love, and if it is a girl, I will teach her that the world is hers.” In our industry today, almost 20 years later, is there still a need to teach these views, or have we arrived? To answer these questions, I recommend that you see the film, and decide for yourself.
Polytechnique was released by Alliance Films and Remstar this spring and played in cities across Canada. Robyn McGregor, now with EBA in Calgary, was an engineering student, sitting an examination at the University of Waterloo, on December 6, 1989.