Film note: Polytechnique

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
1h 17min, Canada, 2009

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Director Denis Villeneuve‘s striking black and white feature attempts to dramatize the 1989 Montreal Massacre during which a troubled feminist-hating young man enters a polytechnical school and goes on a killing rampage, specifically targeting women. There’s a bit too much of an agenda here — a feminist one, which I’m nevertheless sympathetic to — for me to get completely behind some of the somewhat heavy-handed choices made. (Other than the shooter, the characters and their individual arcs are fictional, so Villeneuve is free to invent narratives that conceptualize what he thinks the shooting “meant.”) 

The script divides up the narrative between two central characters, a young ambitious woman who lands an important internship in a male-dominated field and the cute, bearded young man who borrows her notes. Even that brief setup might seem a bit schematic, no? Where they end up says a lot, too, maybe too much, and whether you’re willing to buy each story’s end has a lot to do with how strongly you feel that the shooter and his atrocities should be solely defined as misogynist. As a political statement, it’s pretty powerful. As an artistic one, I wish Villeneuve had held back a little, a need made most clear when the young man’s gaze lingers just a little too long on a poster of Picasso’s Guernica hanging in the student bookstore.

The film’s most clever formal strategy is a temporal break occurring after the gunman separates women from men in a classroom and asks the men to leave. The bearded young man is one of those. He watches the group of women through the door’s window, including the young woman from whom he borrowed class notes. Before that, the film had presented the two characters and assorted ancillary ones in one unified narrative. After the shooting begins, the young man’s story takes over and continues to its resolution. After a fade-to-black, the film returns to the point where the two characters’ stories separated, repeating a previous shot from a different perspective and thus updating us on what actually happened in the classroom during and after the shooting of the group of women. Then the young woman’s story advances to its rather too-easy and on-point, uplifting conclusion which is in contrast to the tragic ending of the young man’s story. 

The main body of narrative is also structured as a flashback — the opening shots of the film are excerpts from the shooting that occurs later, and twice again from different perspectives. These elisions, repetitions, and overlaps are far more suggestive of what constitutes identities and ideologies than simplistic foreshadowing or the symbolic binary divisions implied by some of Villeneuve’s other choices. But still, a refreshingly moral movie.

Originally published on Letterboxd.

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