‘..tackling unspeakable material, and making something transcendent and meaningful from events most of us would rather pretend didn’t happen

With a release planned to capitalise on the Xmas 2020 release of Dune, which obviously isn’t happening due to the virus, this BFI release of a formative work from Denis Villeneuve is still something of an event. Let’s face it, Villeneuve is in quite a position right now as a film-maker, with some sizable work including Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 under his belt. But few know much of his work before his breakthrough with the uber-creepy Enemy, and while Polytechnique doesn’t offer the sci-fi trappings that the Canadian director is most closely associated with, fans will want to sample this break-through film for completeness.

But trigger warnings must come first. This is a film about a real-life shooting, and that’s upsetting for a start. But the 1989 Montreal Massacre, as they have been luridly dubbed, is particularly agonising because it involves specific attacks on women by a lone-gunmen, who separated sexes to amplify his own twisted message. That’s content which many will find too hard to take, and understandably so. It’s also true that Gus Van Sant’s Elephant covered similar ground, but Villeneuve makes it his own by taking a few bold steps. The characters are fictional, out of respect for the victims, and the writer/director doesn’t use the real locations; this isn’t the ‘just the facts’ approach of Paul Greengrass. The timeline is jumbled, certain events repeat in different contexts, and there’s a couple of mind-blowing, lyrical shots that make this far more than an educational re-enactment.

And crucially, there’s also a grace-note here, in that Polytechnique attempts to posit something upbeat in the bleakest of settings; there is hope for the survivors, albeit hard won. Polytechnique depicts the killer but shows no sympathy. He stalks the corridors, shooting not indiscriminately but with warped intent. The film explores with economy the lives of the victims, and examines in granular detail the effect that witnessing such horrors has on those unfortunate enough to be caught up in these events. Occasional visual flourishes illuminate their inner lives, and are disconnected from the violence, from which we are not spared.

To be clear, Polytechnique is, as intended, an ordeal to watch, even at a squat 79 minute running time. Although depicting lone gunmen is a dangerous game, Villeneuve shows his chops by tackling unspeakable material, and making something transcendent and meaningful from events most of us would rather pretend didn’t happen. And Polytechnique has a unique selling point; violence to women is pervasive in our society, and by focusing on this extreme example, Polytechnique takes a collected look at loss, and is compelling, essential viewing for anyone who gives a damn about how we treat each other.

Thanks to the BFI for advance access to this film.

Out now (Dec 2020) in the UK on Blu-ray.

iTunes and Amazon Prime release on 21 December 2020




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  1. I vividly remember when the École Polytechnique shooting happened. I was 18, in my first year of university in Ottawa, only a couple of hours away from Montréal. I’ve carried the memories of fear and anger and shock with me ever since. I commemorate the anniversary, generally in a private, personal way, every year. Interestingly, though, I only just learned about this film a couple of weeks ago. I honestly don’t think I could watch it. It hits a bit too close to home.

    • I have to admit, I knew nothing about the event until I started watching the film. I could barely watch it, and found the experience traumatic. But I do see a value in making a film on this subject, to educate people like me who filter out news events like this. Thanks so much for your valued comment.

  2. I hadn’t heard of the Montreal Massacre so went down the google/wiki/youtube rabbit holes. I don’t think I’d want to see the movie, and the clips I did see are quite intense and scary as well as distressing, so worthy as it sounds, I guess a long nope from me.

    • And you get a pass fr this one, absolutely. I dodn’t use the term ordeal lightly, but it’s a tough watch, yet rewarding. Just not a film you’d want to happen upon by accident…strong stuff.

  3. In all seriousness, just what does a director bring to a film? I hear names tossed about but how does that affect a movie? If DirectorX did one movie and then a new one comes out directed by him, what does that actuall mean?

    • Good question. In this case, I gather the director was frustrated by his first couple of movies, and wanted to make something that would have some genuine meaning. So the idea to create the movie is his. There’s other cases where a director can just be a gun-for-hire, but this is not one of them…although this is not sci-fi there’s regonisable elemnts which are consistent with his big, popular movies, and it’s interesting to see how his style develops…Enemy, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival were all good movies,and I wanted to see where this guy came from…

        • Could be a look, from stylized or expressionist to documentary. Or a moral sensibility. Or a way of handling things like suspense, or comic timing. Or an interest in certain kinds of storytelling or presentation of character. Not every director brings a lot that’s different to the table though, and sometimes it doesn’t make much difference.

          • I endorese this view to the letter. Some directors are even distinctive by their blandness. Others, every frame they make could only have come from them.

        • Yes, I think so. Some directors are anonymous, and bring no imprint to their films. But most do develop identifiable themes and techniques. It’s easy to characterise say Hitchcock for his suspense, or Michael Bay for explosions. Others are a little more tricky, but yes, you see fingerprints…

    • Copy adjusted, thanks, and yes, not right to lump this in with high-school shootings, appreciate the correction here.

        • I think Elephant works well on its own terms, and this does offer something different in terms of a take on the material. The emphasis on the feelings of failure of the survivors is a key element here.

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