Polytechnique (2009)

Denis Villeneuve | 1hr 17min

The tragic college shooting that takes place in Polytechnique is bookended by two voiceovers, both reading out letters. The first belongs to the unnamed murderer, writing his suicide note that lays out his bitterly sexist motivations. Though he does not speak much throughout the film, it is this pungent misogyny which hangs over the film like a monstrous shadow, stalking victims down hallways and mercilessly taking their lives. The other voiceover which closes the film belongs to a survivor, Valérie. In the letter she writes to his parents she expounds the devastation their son has left behind, but she also speaks of the guidance she will provide to the child now growing inside her belly that they never gave to theirs.

Between the two voiceovers, Denis Villeneuve creates a terrifyingly bleak reconstruction of the 1989 Polytechnique Montreal massacre as seen through the eyes of two students. One of them is Valérie, who is badly wounded in a brutal attack. The other is Jean-François, who may be the closest thing we get to a hero in this hopeless situation. The model of masculinity that he projects exists in stark contrast to the killer’s toxic ideologies, and yet not even his selfless efforts to rescue his peers is enough to conquer the overwhelming despair that the shooter brings inside these halls.

Solid form in the repetition of this shot – before and after the shooting, light and dark, coming from opposing angles.

Villeneuve plays out this massacre twice over from the alternate points-of-view of Jean-François and Valérie. It goes without saying which version carries even greater mortal terror to it, given the killer’s motives. The first time we see him enter a classroom and send the men outside, we carry their guilt for not staying behind and doing more. The second time we watch this play out from the inside with the women, the fear is immediate and inescapable. Such is the impression that Villeneuve captures in this structure that even in repeating it twice over, we never quite feel that it really comes to an end. Just as it plays out in the minds of traumatised survivors for years to come, so to do we feel doomed to live out the same soul-shaking torment on repeat.

Snow white exteriors, almost the exact opposite of Villeneuve’s cramped interiors though no less oppressive. The bleakness is devastating and inescapable.

Outside this engineering school, snowy landscapes set a dismal, unforgiving tone that matches the killer’s cold isolation and bitterness. For these students, Polytechnique doubles as both a place of growth and a comfortable shelter from the icy Canadian winter, and as the lone shooter enters its premises, he destroys both. Those who manage to make it out scatter into the blizzard, looking like small black dots facing an equally dreary world than the one they just came from. For one survivor haunted by the trauma, this snow-white exterior similarly becomes the setting of his own eventual suicide, wrapping the young man up in the same pernicious grip which took away fourteen other students and teachers, and prolonging the massacre long after the killer’s death.

Claustrophobia in Villeneuve’s masterful staging and compositions. Most of all, it is his use of mirrors to create the illusion of openness, and his narrowed frames through doorways and corridors to lead us through his terrifying labyrinth.

Those who remain inside though, whether by choice or because they are trapped, find themselves locked inside a labyrinth. Long tracking shots hang onto the back of our main cast’s heads much like Gus van Sant did in Elephant, his dramatisation of the Columbine High School massacre, though within the modernist architecture of Polytechnique Montreal where narrow corridors and angles trap our main cast in claustrophobic frames, Villeneuve effectively turns the environment into a complex series of passageways to navigate. In one shot he flips his camera sideways to track across a row of bookshelves seemingly rising upwards, and later it turns completely upside down to turn a hallway ceiling into a floor which he unnervingly dollies down.

Unnerving camerawork twisting these university corridors beyond the usual perspectives – it becomes something truly warped and fearsome.

Perhaps the most disturbingly quiet image in Polytechnique though is the overhead shot of the killer lying dead on the floor, next to the body of his final victim. As Villeneuve’s camera pulls back and twists around, their two pools of blood intermingle into one. Had this been shot in colour, perhaps we would have recoiled at the overbearing gore of such a grotesque sight. Instead, his monochrome photography simply considers the light and shape of such powerful compositions, letting the symbolism of this shot arrive at a more psychologically unsettling conclusion – the deaths of all these people will forever be tied to one violent, hateful man.

Symbolism in this overhead shot, merging two pools of blood – the killer and his victim.

With Valérie’s final voiceover looking to the future though, Villeneuve delivers one last piece of hope. For those who lived and died through the massacre of Polytechnique, there may not be any more peaceful nights of sleep, trusting that the world is a good place. But in their children, there is always another chance for women to understand their value, and for men to do better.

The blocking of faces in this shot as both women play dead breaks through the extreme tragedy with a very slight sense of poignant companionship.

Polytechnique is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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