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