Written for Dr. Boulou Ebanda de B'béri's 'Canadian and Quebec Cinema'
by Xi (Samuel) Wang and Will Hume at University of Ottawa. March 2016.
Actions and Behaviours
Polytechnique (2009) is a retelling of the December 6th, 1989 massacre. A true story in which 14 women are murdered. The deadly attack was until 2020, the deadliest in Canadian history. The killer’s ranting actions were despicable and misogynistic. He walked into a Mechanical Engineering class, divided the class based on sex, and asked the men to leave. He then opened fire and then proceeded to kill fifteen people, including himself.
In the film he walks in during a lecture on Entropy (the dissociation of order into chaos). In a scant reassertion of authority, one of the male aides repeat the killer’s instruction. The killer then says a few lines to the women trying to rationalize why they are there. ‘You are feminists. I hate feminists.’ A woman then counters stating they are just women, not feminists. She and the rest of the nine women are then shot.
Villeneuve crafts themes of duality and multiplicity throughout the film. He films in some ways that ironically counteract the very actions depicted on screen. The film is a true story told factually as it happened, yet all characters and names are fictitious. The perpetrator is only referred to as The Killer. They nonetheless represent the identity of actual people. The director lenses in Black and White restraining the brutality. Compare that to another post-modern Canadian exploration of violence. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) made around the same period did no such thing. Polytechnique is as far away as possible from a comic book film. The unflinching depiction of violence is muted out of respect to the victims families. Thus, blood on-screen appears as black. In this way the Black & White aesthetic offers a mission statement of sorts to the film. This is how it happened. Nothing more, nothing less.
Reflecting Canadian culture the film is performed in French & English. [Note: Special Features are only available in French]. The location of Montreal as a cross-cultural center is also relevant. It is a multilingual city. The name Polytechnique. ‘Poly’ itself means ‘many’ in Greek. Fittingly, we see many perspectives at play.
We see the perspective of the killer; defined as little more than a man with a gun. Taking up arms has long been supplanted as a symbol of masculinity. Here that symbolism twists into man’s association danger, death; and destruction. Conversely, the film follows a different sort of man- a student named Jean-Francois. His struggle and futility to do anything in the face of chaos is emasculating, insofar as tropes go. He tries to help by running to the campus security office to alert them of danger and is not taken seriously. [Note: If you want someone to take what you are saying seriously say it 3 times.] He is not a respected figure of authority and is thus ineffective in taking charge. He tries to comfort a female victim offering his jacket, a part of his clothing thus identity. Yet he does not see it as enough. Villeneuve’s direction ensures audience empathy. He leaves her for a time as the film cuts away to another point of view. After an absence (absenteeism, another theme in the movie), he proceeds to gather medical supplies for the wounded female. Gathering and care-giving is predominantly seen as a feminine trait in society. This is even referenced in an earlier job interview scene. After dressing the nameless female victim’s wounds, hearing her expressively say ‘Thank you’ is not enough for him. And Jean continues to grieve wracked with survivor’s guilt.
The post traumatic comforts of motherly love is not enough to sway Jean’s feelings. In a way representing the ultimate male rejection of female feelings. With the benefit of hindsight and great passivity, it is easy to imagine from the audience what Jean could have done. Villeneuve respectfully refrains from judgement. Instead of damning or criticizing as many men were at the time of the actual shooting he lets the characters be. Their own guilt enough is too overwhelming as Jean surrenders to his grief. Ultimately becoming another victim of the attack. He, like the killer he is mistaken for, does his own damning by way of suicide. [NOTE: In Canada, men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. Although more women attempt suicide, men doing so by more lethal means, and are less likely to seek help.]
Villeneuve demonstrates the push of men against women by use of force. But he doesn’t stop there. Even the smallest act; a thoughtless and offhand remark during an interview, leaves a mark. Both men’s action and inaction can have a great impact. This can leave everyone, men included, feeling trapped.
Many women in the film memorably manage to offer comfort in the face of death. The shot of two women, trapped, embracing each other before execution comes to mind. Another two-shot; Valerie and Stephanie lying on the ground in a blood-soaked embrace playing dead. After Valerie drags her wounded-self out of the blood-soaked room and back. She survives this oppressive ordeal, and triumphs in her identity as a female. She lives to develop relationships. She is pregnant, breaking out the singular identity she is reduced to at the beginning of the film. Her earlier outfit selection later helps her materializes a deep postmodern identity. Becoming the most realized character arc in the film. The killer by comparison worries his actions, will be interpreted as they are; the degenerative work of a madman. He never transcends his singular identity. She does in a battle hard-fought and won.
It is interesting how Villeneuve; identifiably male, displays a reverence for female characters. The female protagonist is capable, yet undermined by men at every turn. In the job interview she receives a sexist remark. In class she gives her notes to be copied for a late Jean-Francois to have the same advantages she worked for. The killer separates her from the men and attacks her. Like Villeneuve’s great female protagonists; she is a symbol of perseverance. After the trauma, her degree and internship, writing a letter to the killer’s mother and having a child. She succeeds continuing on unhelped by the men around her including Jean-Francois. His actions as a man do not represent misogyny, they are responsive, caring but unheroic. One of the interesting things the director does is display the actions of men across a spectrum.
The female point of view coming after the male is an interesting stylistic choice. The film opens with a female point of view and intercuts, following Valerie. A female engineering student, applying in her field. She faces questions about her motherly instincts as if that is relevant. The killer writes to his mother, as does Valerie. The killer writes to his mother before his murderous spree: ‘Dear Mom, it was inevitable’. Valerie writes to the killer’s mother for closure; pregnant; hopeful despite facing tragedy. Severely wounded physically and mentally by the shooting. Villeneuve frames these women as well as Jean-Francois’ mother with reverence. Motherhood is a keystone of many Villeneuve films; (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049). The raw determination usually reserved for men in film is not found here.
Jean-Francois’ first appearance mirror’s his male counterpart. As the camera goes from upside down to right-side up as he rushes last-minute to finish notes for a test. borrowing from ‘Valerie’ his female colleague. He goes to the copy machine allowing a woman to go ahead of him, then returning to class a few before the killer arrives. J.F.’s point of view shows the futility of decency as a response to chaos, misogyny, and violence [Entropy]. Abandoning his female colleagues, he runs to security while everyone else is oblivious. He does not tell anyone but a guard, a man who takes the news sitting down as a joke. Running back to where the shooting began he re-enters the room, assumed by Valerie to be the killer. His masculinity the only recognizeable factor. J.F. surveys the room interpreting the women to be dead and leaves to the copier where he was earlier. He finds a victim lying on the floor. He comforts her with his jacket and then leaves her to get medical supplies, coming back to dress her wounds. Later on, he enters a hallway where the killer is and then dives into an oblivious classroom. Later, wracked by guilt by the multiplicity of his identity, a male survivor. He rejects it altogether.
Themes and Processes
Post-modernism is an important topics in Canadian and Quebec cinema. At least since the end of 1980s. We can perceive this ideology From Bill Marshall: “In the 1990s is that Canada is the first ‘post-modern state’”. A large number of Canadian and Quebec movies produced in this era reflect to the thoughts of post-modernity, such as Robert Lepage’s Le Confessional (1995) and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal (1989).
Marshall indicates four differences between modernity and postmodernity: diagnostics, city and memory. In our opinion, diagnostics could be a key point through the entire movie. In this way Feminism, ethnography, and life and death choices are diagnostic approaches. There were three narrations in the film; the killer, Jean and Valerie. The multi-perspective narrators serve the opportunity to further critical observations about identity. Moreover, the idea of the city and community are expressed. Based on a real event in Quebec history. The setting is part of the of storytelling identity. It’s right there in the title! Denis Villeneuve had not directed a film in 8 years. The reason he was selected was due to his ties to the region. He was aware of the cultural identity. In this way he was able to make a docudrama from a distance but with personal perspective.
The topic of memory is touched upon in this film. Both the male and female survivors suffer from post trauma; however, their differing reactions provide separate key values in postmodernity.
Another postmodernity component discovered in Canadian and Quebec postmodernity is intertextuality. Behind the images some other forms of art may share the similar ideologies. Colleen Murphy’s drama play The December Man (2007) is an equal reference to Polytechnique. The December Man focused on the destiny of a fictional character Jean. Although his mother provides familial support, he still succumbs to suicidal guilt. This renders the play’s ending tragic. The cross-referencing contributed to postmodernity in The December Man and Polytechnique. Familial support is a central value in The December Man, and it also appears in Polytechnique. Judgement and deliberation of help is also of note in Polytechnique, and The December Man. Furthermore, traumatic effect on the innocent is portrayed in both media. Besides the above cross-reference, the film can also relate to Guernica by Picasso. The painting is visible after the killing spree starts and displays in freeze-frame. Related to the background of the creation of Guernica, we can make connections to the film. Guernica was an abstract black and white oil painting created by Picasso in 1937. Created the same year after the Nazis bombed the Spanish city of Guernica. Its aesthetic and images of screaming women are an artistic response to a massacre.
The theme of multiple identities are demonstrated in this movie. The male protagonist Jean, is a college student and survivor. A more judgmental side could describe him as a coward. The female protagonist Valerie is a strong willed survivor and mechanical engineer. She also provides a role later on as a mother leading to the further discussion of feminism within the film. Furthermore, though it was debated among us, the killer also represents multiple identities. From one angle, he is a cruel murderer; but also a son, who came from a second generation immigrant family. Evidenced by the letter he wrote to his mother. These multiple elements of identity reflect the dramatic and complicated history of Quebec & Canada. Rather than a dominant and single unique cultural American melting pot. The exploration of all these themes; multiple identities; borders, letters, the cyclical impact of violence against men and women are duly explored and repeated in the director’s later 5 films immediately following in the next decade: Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016).
Another decision is made when the killer asks the male students and staff to leave the classroom. And echoed when a male staff repeats the instructions. The hesitation of Jean and his fellow men to abandon the women is shown. Ultimately they comply. For fear of rejecting the order of the killer and protecting the women. Another example of the decision making develops in aftermath. The massacre of the Polytechnique campus ends in the suicide of the killer. The mental tragedy and influence of the killings still occupy the mind of the survivors. Although Jean was no killer directly responsible for the deaths. Although he offered help to a wounded female student. He still suffers the trauma of survivor’s guilt. Leaving Valerie in the classroom without rescuing other female students. Jean later visits his mother’s, gaining the support and understanding of family. Yet still another tragic and deadly decision develops. Between the choice of reunion with his family and moving on with a new life. He succumbs to his guilt taking the action of suicide to become another victim of the attack.
Finally, the choice-making, reaction and responses from Valerie. A shooting victim of the attack, her willpower and determination aide her as a survivor to trauma. Unlike Jean, while the tragedy casts a shadow on her mentally, she successfully works to escape it. Although the nightmare of the tragedy still resides, she decides to start a new life. She graduates from engineering school, receives the internship and a contentment of relationship.
Marshall, Bill. “Modernity and Postmodernity” in Quebec National Cinema. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, pp. 285-312
Murphy, Colleen. The December Man = L’homme De Décembre. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 2007. Print.