Polytechnique – DVD
Review by Ralph Lucas, Publisher
(August 25, 2009) Ff you are lucky enough to live a long time you get to celebrate many different kinds of anniversaries. Events, large or small, happy or sad, seem to take on greater meaning with the passage of time and seem to be even more important in years that end in zeros or fives. This December 6th will mark the 20th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Montréal Massacre. That`s the day a rabid woman-hater strolled through that city’s L’École Polytechnique and killed 14 young women because they were, as witnesses later attested and the film reports, “feminists.” I wonder if director Denis Villeneuve felt some extra weight as he prepared to take his concept to film last year knowing this would be the 20th anniversary.
Now available on DVD in both standard and Blu-Ray formats, the work here is careful, studied, sometimes distant and sometimes far too close. Shot documentary style in black and white, the story was important enough to be double-shot in French and English and the DVD contains both films. In the special set there is an “extras” disk in French only, but the events and details are easily understood even if you don’t understand a word of Canada`s other official language.
The film begins, within a few seconds, with the start of the end. The sudden rifle explosion is loud, terrifying and totally unexpected. Startled into a brief moment of surprise, the device serves to rivet your attention to the events as they unfold over the next 80-minutes.
Polytechnique was assembled from first-hand accounts Villeneuve was to film. I’m sure he wrote a script, but the words are real, and the action strikingly so. I must admit to being totally surprised at how well he handled the killer, Marc Lepine, played deftly by Maxim Gaudette. There are moments when Lepine seems to stop, as if unsure of what he is about to do, as if some deep force was trying to compel him to take another course. To maybe take his own life and just let the world off one more senseless act. I read a news report shortly before the film’s debut in which Karine Vanasse was quoted as saying, “We did not want to judge or blame anyone. We wanted to tell the human side of the story.”
If that was indeed the plan then the filmmakers have achieved that goal. By remaining distant, unemotional, stark, we are forced to react to the real events we are seeing using unprompted emotions. I know there was music in the film, but unlike its use in most movies, to help tell you how you’re supposed to feel, here it is just filler, something to fill the empty places in the dialogue. I never felt as if I was being manipulated by the music and so what I did feel was far more real, which must have been what Villeneuve wanted. It was very much like watching a documentary where despite what is happening on the screen you are compelled to watch because you know what you are seeing is real.
I have some minor complaints with the way Villenueve handles time, but they are truly minor. There are details about some of the events that happened after the massacre which I didn’t know and so the film provides a slightly wider view of the tragedy. The casting is excellent and Vanasse carries the weight of the film in every scene she is in.
When it was released in Québec the film did very well and received excellent reviews. It didn’t do nearly as well in the rest of Canada, which is a shame. The event has a special resonance and groups all across the country mark December 6th as a special day of remembrance. They remember the women, they remember the event, still fresh in a collective memory all these years later. At the very least watching this thin, deadly slice of history unfold 20 years after the real event should remind us of the sad fact that we still haven’t solved the problem of violence toward women. We still haven’t solved all those random acts of violence that erupt with startling frequency in our cities, towns, villages, schools and homes.
Also see: The Cast & Crew of Polytechnique.
Ralph Lucas is a former broadcast executive and award-winning director in high-end corporate video production. The founder and publisher of Northernstars.ca, online since 1998, he began writing about film and reviewing movies while in radio in Montreal in the mid-1970s.