From Maelström to Incendies, Denis Villeneuve has displayed a propensity for articulating the human impact of violence through a purposely flamboyant style that’s discomfiting in its emotional candor and sincerity. Before the Oscar-nominated Incendies cemented his reputation as a major film artist, the Québécois filmmaker made Polytechnique, an austere dramatization of the École Polytechnique shooting massacre that claimed the lives of 14 women on December 6, 1989. Though it’s as schematic in construction as Incendies, the film doesn’t grind along to a ponderous plot; it’s unnerving abstraction of its subject matter more daringly relays Villeneuve’s view of the human cost of gender warfare.
From beginning to end, Villeneuve’s highly subjective use of image and sound recalls Elem Klimov’s Come and See, distancing itself from the more commercial and propagandistic impulses of Paul Greengrass’s vile United 93. Though the film is dedicated to the victims of the École Polytechnique massacre and was met upon completion with the approval of the survivors’ families, it doesn’t play out as hagiography. As in Incendies, time and place is made to feel vague, so that the story exudes an odd timelessness; even the equally deliberate, and telling, use of music (from a cover version of “Tainted Love” to the 1979 Siouxie and the Banshees B-side “Love in a Void”) fittingly adds to the overall sense of discombobulation.
The film, early on, resembles little more than a fancily staged funeral procession. Worse is the story’s seemingly trite evaluation of the (here nameless) shooter’s mental distress: Prior to writing an eloquent suicide letter, in which he rails against his great enemy (i.e. feminism), the depressed loner peers out various windows of his apartment to spy on a woman in an adjacent flat. Yes, the psychological assessment seems facile (in short, he hates that he loves them), but Villeneuve’s camera doesn’t harp on the perverse; by ardently focusing on the killer’s face, then on his arched, shock-frozen body as he sits on his bed, the filmmaker conveys a modern-mythic sense of man’s almost existential alienation from women.
Then Villeneuve hopscotches into the headspace of the female mind and a parallel narrative fascinatingly emerges. Nearby, Stéphanie (Evelyne Brochu) helps her friend and roommate Valérie (Karine Vanasse) get ready for her day. The calculation, obsessiveness even, with which Valérie fixates on her attire appears to give credence to this notion of female vanity as a male-terrorizing agent, except Villeneuve clearly reveres the tenacity of the woman’s process, agonizingly commiserating with her after she’s humiliated during an interview for an aeronautics internship (which she gets) after her ambition is questioned because of her sex. Villeneuve’s blistering artistry humanizes all facets of the postmodern battle of the sexes.
But Polytechnique isn’t just about the way men and women unconsciously make enemies of one another. After a classroom scene in which a lecture on entropy comes off as a winking reference on Villeneuve’s part to his highly controlled artistry, the film testifies to our complex instincts for survival. When the shooter takes aim at the École Polytechnique’s female students, Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau) rises from the rubble of fallen books and bodies on a hero’s quest to save Valérie, then a girl dying before a copy machine. Sneaking through hallways, up and down stairs while trying to dodge the shooter, the young man slinks into a room of partying fucktards who are oblivious to the panic exploding outside. This jarring moment of dislocation, essentially a commentary on collective consciousness, is mind-searing; one almost gets a clairvoyant sense that Jean-François, given how he’s shockingly absorbed this tragedy from more vantage points than even the shooter, will never be free of the memory of this cataclysmic day.
Once the story moves beyond the massacre, to focus on Jean-François’s post-traumatic stress, Villeneuve’s vivacious style unbelievably expresses how victims of tragedy are metaphysically linked. The film audaciously doubles back on itself, and what at first plays out like a projection of a dying man’s worst nightmare emerges as another person’s own remembrance of the massacre. The image of a man, husband or boyfriend it doesn’t matter, holding Valérie from behind as she fights back nausea—from nightmares or morning sickness, maybe both—is a simple, lucid, and uncondescending acknowledgement that the massacre destroyed whatever chance Valérie and Jean-François had as lovers, maybe even as friends. This black-and-white image, like every other one in this impeccably controlled film, registers as an imprint of the minds of three inextricably bound lives, and together they attest to the struggle of having to live through tragedy, and how sometimes the only way to live through it is to not live at all.