Before Denis Villeneuve began wading into the genre of science fiction, he was making hard-hitting dramas that did not shy away from very real issues of the world. I had expressed as much in my review of Villeneuve’s Academy Award nominated film Incendies, which deals with the trickling effect past horrors have upon a family hailing from the Middle-East.
Villeneuve’s preceding 2009 film Polytechnique, though, deals with a horrific event that is a lot closer to home for the Canadian people.
Detailing the traumatic and very real École Polytechnique massacre of 1989, the film uses two fictional students to depict the shooting as carried out by the profoundly disturbed Marc Lépine (Maxim Gaudette), who specifically targeted women in what can only be described as a misogynistic hate crime.
Villeneuve boldly sets the tone in the film’s opening seconds, as we are presented with a lingering shot of a copy-room, before the mechanical sounds of the copiers are callously drowned out by Lépine (who is off-screen at the time) opening fire on a group of unwary students.
From this point, there is a perpetual sense of dread that Villeneuve skillfully maintains in his chillingly sober depiction of Lépine, as we intermittently see him set his plans in motion prior to the opening sequence. However, Villeneuve rightfully denies Lépine the spotlight, as the primary character work is focused on Valérie (Karine Vanasse), a strong woman studying engineering, seeking a career in the field of aeronautics.
I find Valérie is without question the most fitting lead for the film, as her having to overcome a patriarchal career-track is the perfect antithesis of Lépine’s misogynistic beliefs, highlighted by his suicide note at the beginning (which, it should be noted, is essentially a word-for-word transcription of what Lépine actually wrote in the note he left). This makes Polytechnique more than just a film about an appalling act committed by a twisted individual, but a commentary on how perversely bitter the world can often be.
The film’s visuals further bolster its commentary on the senselessness of acts like Lépine’s. Twisting camera angles perfectly convey the skewed nature of what is to or has transpired, while an intense and enduring shot of Picasso’s Guernica sent chills down my spine. And when the shooting does start, the cinematography feels so matter-of-factly, which, in fact, greatly adds to its disconcerting intensity.
With a runtime of 77 minutes, Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique is a streamlined cinematic piece that is not as concerned with the usual manipulative fluff found in numerous depictions of real-life atrocities. While I do feel that Villeneuve’s sense of pacing is not always well-timed, it is nonetheless amazing how impactful a story he can build around these events in such a short time. The director/screenwriter handles the film’s themes and subject matter with grace, all the while granting us insight into the tragically lasting effects such violence and hate can have, before giving the audience a much needed glimmer of hope in the film’s closing.