A Massacre of Misogyny



Polytechnique, directed by Denis Villeneuve

One of the most horrific events in recent Canadian history was the Montreal Massacre of 1989. 14 women were shot down at the Ecole’ Polytechnique by a man who also took his own life. And now, this devastating act of misogyny is the subject of French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s new film, Polytechnique.

Are Canadians ready to revisit this horrific event through another person’s perspective? To debate this question we’ve divided the film’s finer points and placed them into three categories: Misogyny, Cinematography, and the Canadian awareness.

The Misogyny

Cook:              Villeneuve isn't bound to simply retell the Montreal Massacre. He uses this tragedy as a way of examining the casual misogyny in our culture, and its horrific consequences. We spend quite a bit of time with the killer in the film, but he is never closely analyzed – merely observed. There's also a second male character that is essentially the antithesis of the killer. He shows sensitivity towards women and in the midst of the shooting does as much as he can to help out. These two men, to my mind, are two sides of a coin, and represent our sex as one in dire conflict between love and hate. 

Walker: I have to compliment Villeneuve for structuring the narrative through the guide of figures as opposed to developed characters; it makes the subject matter all the more dominate. One of these figures is a young woman whose passion for mechanical engineering has lead her to apply for an internship. In the application process, the interviewer berates her for having an interest in a male-dominated world. Villeneuve immediately makes a contrast with this scene and that of the perpetrator of the massacre and the victim. Villeneuve never intrudes with a cemented message, but this conflict, and various others that are scattered throughout the film, leave little room for interactivity; they are strikingly simple. This thematic simplicity is at times a benefactor, but was largely a detracting property of the film. 

The Cinematography

Cook:               I wouldn't go so far as to say its simplicity is detrimental. Quite the opposite, in fact. It knows what is too complex to try and tackle and what is obvious enough to make itself apparent.

I'm glad you brought up the job interview with the young woman. The way it is shown to us at first, we don't know if she got the internship or not. Basically, the interviewer expresses his concern that she will eventually bail out to raise a family, and comments that men are better suited for the position. Then it cuts to her crying in a bathroom stall, and it isn't until later that she tells her friend she got the internship, and that she had to hold off on mentioning her desire to have children. We then heartbreakingly realize that she was crying because she had to compromise her integrity in order to succeed. Thus, misogyny takes its toll on our culture. It sets our world out of balance, a truth that the filmmaking supports, as we notice the camera often finds itself floating about, unable to maintain equilibrium. 

Walker: The cinematography is gentle. Villeneuve takes a fragile approach to the material, which constructs a memorable aesthetic in that the drama is properly matched with a camera: it refuses intrusion. The trajectory into the killer’s ideals and breakdown is briefly communicated in the opening moments of the film wherein the killer aggressively reads a suicide letter addressed to the world. Villeneuve maintains his distorted psyche by filming the halls of the Polytechnique with expressionistic camera movements, which is possibly my favorite feature of the film. Also, the choice of black and white fittingly derives from Villeneuve's obsession with matching and desensitizing. The film looks like an assemblage of newspaper clippings, which would have surely been the public’s eye into the event at the time. The black and white simultaneously dampens the effect of the immense violence that is displayed.

The Canadiana

Walker: I'd consider Polytechnique a good Canadian film that makes mistakes by dipping into some mundane contrasts in ideologies – yet, credit must be given to the fact that a film bound to a historical event has come out of Canada. It’s amazing that this film came out of the deprived cinema Canada has. What’s even more astonishing is that it’s based on true events, which rarely is a good thing in terms of allowing the filmmaker creative freedom. But in this case, Villeneuve maintains creative authorship without losing the sincerity that the subject matter demands. 

Cook:               I'm glad you champion this as a Canadian accomplishment, but even out of that context, Polytechnique is praiseworthy. It does pale in comparison to Gus van Sant's Elephant, a film that depicted a fictionalized version of the Columbine shooting. That movie was a masterpiece. But Polytechnique is looking at entirely different themes, and should be seen on its own terms.

Villeneuve finds overwhelming despair within this tragedy, and ultimately in our culture. He also finds stark terror, which makes the scenes that actually depict the shooting almost unbearably intense and harrowing. Polytechnique is an admirable achievement, with an emotional resonance so affecting that I was nearly exhausted by the end. As much as I wholeheartedly recommend the film, I fear returning to it; within the classrooms and hallways of the Ecole’ Polytechnique, there is more pain than I can bear.

The Rating

Walker’s Rating 4/5

Cook’s Rating 4.5/5

Overall 8.5/10

//Adam Cook and Kurt Walker

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