Polytechnique Blu-ray Review
On 6 December 1989, a twenty-five-year-old man entered the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, with a gun. Breaking into a mechanical engineering class, he ordered students to separate, with the men and women to stand on separate sides of the room, before ordering the men to leave. He then shot the nine women remaining, six of them fatally, before moving through the rest of the building shooting at women. In all, he killed fourteen women, one of them by stabbing, and injured another fourteen before he turned the gun on himself. At the time, this was the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history.
Polytechnique is closely based on this, though as an opening caption advises, character names are fictionalised, out of respect for the dead and the survivors. The killer (played by Maxime Gaudette) is not named, and his real-life counterpart will not be named in this review either. Although Polytechnique is an ensemble piece, aside from the killer, other characters do come to the fore. One of them is Valérie (Karine Vanasse), a mechanical engineering student, one of the survivors of the shooting in the classroom. Another is Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau), J-F for short, who is racked with guilt for leaving the room along with the other male students when the killer ordered them to. In brief flash forwards and an epilogue, we see how the events of the day affect their later lives.
The killer was carrying a suicide note, the contents of which weren’t made public until they were leaked a year later. We do hear some of this in the film as voiceover, with the killer specifically targeting not just women but specifically feminists, blaming them for ruining his life and for “retaining the advantages of women while trying to grab those of men.” The year I am writing this review, Laura Bates published a book, Men Who Hate Women, detailing her findings in researching internet groups devoted to “incels” (“involuntary celibates”, prone to blaming women for their lack of sex) and the “manosphere”, those who linger there often discussing their hatred for women and discussing ways and means of raping and killing them.
Since Polytechnique was made, there have been other shootings carried out by young men fuelled by the kind of virulent misogyny shown by the 1989 Montreal killer. The short version is that if you are female, there is a subsection of unknown size of the male population who thinks you are subhuman and fit only be beaten, raped and/or killed. The film does link the killer’s women-hating with examples of casual and institutional sexism: in an interview, Valérie is asked why she wants to study mechanical engineering when civil engineering is a better option to combine with raising a family. While Polytechnique is now eleven years old, and the events it is based on thirty-one years old, it is as timely as it ever was.
The film was French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s third feature: he co-wrote the script with Jacques Davidts. His earlier films were August 32nd on Earth and Maelstrom, although Villeneuve was dissatisfied with them, and had a nine-year hiatus before making Polytechnique. He was approached to make the film by Karine Vanasse, who was one of the producers as well as playing a leading role. The film was shot in both English and French versions, and in black and white as a distancing device so as not to have red blood splashed across the screen. Distancing is right: Villeneuve and his cinematographer Pierre Gill keep us for the most part at arm’s length, with relatively few close-ups and some events which would have been punched up in other films played down. The sound design is also worthy of note, with relatively little loud sound or dialogue, and sparing use of music, except for the genuinely jolting gunfire.
Inevitably, with films dealing with recent atrocities such as this, there is always a question of sensitivity, of how soon is too soon. Polytechnique was made twenty years after its events, I write this in 2020, when a film version has just been announced to deal with the Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania in 1996, to be directed by Justin Kurzel, who had previously dramatised a true-crime story in Snowtown. That mass shooting resulted in changes to Australian gun laws, as those in Hungerford and Dunblane did to British ones. As of this writing, neither of the latter two incidents have been dramatised, though documentaries have been made about them. Villeneuve spoke to relatives of those killed in Montreal and after seeing the film before it was released gave it their blessing. The end credits begin with an in memoriam for the fourteen women who died.
Polytechnique premiered at Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight. It won nine out of the eleven Canadian Genie Awards it was nominated for. Villeneuve has gone on to bigger things, with his next film, Incendies, gaining him an Oscar nomination and the attention of the American film industry. However, Polytechnique remains one of his best. It’s a film hard to shake off.
Polytechnique is released by the BFI as a Blu-ray encoded for Region B only. The film has a 15 certificate.
The film is presented in both its English and French versions, which run to exactly the same length (77:00). Credits and onscreen text are in the appropriate language for whichever version you choose to watch. Otherwise, there’s not a great deal of difference between the two, with scenes using voiceover or with actors speaking in the middle or far background seemingly the same in both versions, apart from a different dialogue track. There are relatively fewer closeups than in many films, and those that are present have clearly been shot twice.
Polytechnique was shot in Super 35 and the Blu-ray is in the intended ratio of 2.40:1. Like many other black and white films of its time, Polytechnique was shot on colour 35mm stock and post-produced in black and white, which in terms of grain and greyscale does look different to films shot on actual black and white stock, but does allow the possibility of producing a colour version. (I’m not aware that any colour version of this film has ever ever shown, though.) Contrast and sharpness are fine, and I’m not in any doubt that the film looks as it is intended to.
The soundtrack is available in DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 for either soundtrack. It’s well-balanced and as I say above intentionally jolting when guns are fired, especially if you are playing it through a 5.1 system, as I was. Subtitle options are hard-of-hearing English for the English version and standard English for the French, though that does put hard-of-hearing Francophone viewers at a disadvantage. I didn’t spot any errors in either stream, though.
The on-disc extras begin with Polytechnique: Ce qu’il reste du 6 décembre (51:48), a television documentary written and directed by Judith Plamondon, made for the thirtieth anniversary of the shootings in 2019. Karine Vanasse narrates this French-language piece and interviewed are survivors and witnesses of the shooting. This is a fitting contextual piece for the feature (of which an extract is shown) and shows, if we needed to know, that what it depicts has not gone away.
Also on the disc is the trailer for Polytechnique (1:25) which serves double duty for both the French and English versions by not having any dialogue in it, nor indeed any sound other than music.
The BFI’s booklet, available with the first pressing only, runs to twenty-eight pages. It begins with a foreword by Villeneuve, who has clearly struggled with the question of whether one can or should revisit events like this, and the impact the original shootings had on him. Jessica Klang follows with an essay that begins by listing all the school shootings that took place in North America, all but one of them in the USA, between Montreal in 1989 and the release of Polytechnique. No doubt that all of these have their effect on the film, which Klang has some reservations about but describes as “cold and bleakly beautiful as a fall of snow”. After this is a short piece by Karine Vanasse in which she talks about her reasons for making the film and also the documentary included on this disc. This is followed by a biography of Vanasse and an overview of Denis Villeneuve’s films by Justine Smith. The booklet also includes credits for the feature and the documentary and a statement on the latter by Judith Plamondon.
Polytechnique is available to buy on Blu-ray from December 7.
Dir: Denis Villeneuve | Cast: Karine Vanasse, Martin Watier, Maxim Gaudette, Sébastien Huberdeau | Writers: Denis Villeneuve (collaboration), Eric Leca (collaboration), Jacques Davidts (scenario and dialogue)