Polytechnique: Denis Villeneuve’s chilling, non-linear account of the Montreal Massacre

Polytechnique is Denis Villeneuve’s third feature, and it’s also his first truly great one. It was my first Villeneuve film and it instantly made me a fan of the director. This is one of those films that I wish I had made. It was the first in a series of brilliantly complex and thought-provoking subjects which he has now become a master of, most notably the extremely haunting Incendies, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination. The subject of Polytechnique is a real event that shocked the world: the Montreal Massacre, also known as the École Polytechnique massacre given the location where it all occurred, the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It will haunt you and keep you thinking long after the film has ended.

Villeneuve chose to shoot the entire film in black-and-white, and opens it with a sudden, shocking burst of violence before immediately cutting away to the film’s title without giving us a moment to process it all. There will be time for that later, and even a vague explanation – if there is any – for the senseless act of violence committed by a severely misogynist 25-year-old man named Marc Lepine, on December 6, 1989. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a hunting knife, he went on a wild shooting spree, killing 14 women and injuring 10 more in the process. 4 men were also injured, but Lepine primarily targeted women. The entire incident took place in just under 20 minutes, and he would kill himself later using the same rifle. What created the impulse that led him to commit such a barbaric act?

In his suicide note he wrote that he wanted to “send all feminists to their maker” and blamed them for ruining his life. He viewed women as opportunists who wanted to live off men and snatch away all their privileges. He refused to exist for the government. He asked why some women are given so many honors when in reality they did nothing at all. He had resolved to make this – eradicating women – his sole mission. But how did he feel about his mother? We are curious about this. The scene that Villeneuve cuts to after the film’s title is of Lepine mentally preparing himself. His suicide note took only a few minutes to write; but the amount of debates, articles and research papers written on him will take more than just a few minutes. His attitude and his actions were despicable, sure, but whether the film sees him that way is unclear.

The victims’ names have been changed, and Lepine is never referred to by name. Before coming back to the entire length of the incident, Villeneuve takes us to the moments preceding it — from both the killer’s and the victims’ lives. The main focus is on three characters: two female students as well as a male student who experiences the heavily devastating after-effects of the incident. One of the women attends a job interview hours before the shooting and has to deal with a sexist interviewer. The film is not dialogue-heavy and almost plays out like a silent film, keeping everything to the point.  I’m sure it would’ve been much more intense had it been shot in color.  The entire runtime is close to 77 minutes.

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