Denis Villeneuve may be one of the biggest and most acclaimed directors today, but only due to his American films, such as Blade Runner 2049, Sicario and Arrival. Back in 2009, he was respected in his native Quebec for his second feature, Maelström, but was disappointed with his previous films. As a result he took nine years off, and wasn’t going to return until “when I was ready to make a film I could be proud of.” For Villeneuve, that film was Polytechnique. It wasn’t really until Prisoners that he finally made it into the big leagues, although Incendies was a big festival and critical hit as well as a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Polytechnique isn’t a film that was quite made in real time, because it shows the aftermath and effects on the survivors, but it feels like it. It’s about the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, which was for the longest time the deadliest shooting in Canada—it was eclipsed by the 2020 Nova Scotia attacks, but both incidents led to more stringent gun control laws in Canada. The perpetrator is deliberately rendered nameless in the film out of respect for the victims and their families. He was what would be called an “incel” today, and I’m sure there are plenty of sick tribute pages for him to be found in various corners of the internet where incels lurk. Basically, he felt “feminists” ruined his life and he was rejected for a course at École Polytechnique, so decided to stock up on ammunition and get a assault rifle.
When the film played festivals it inevitably drew comparisons to Gus Van Sant’s film about a fictional school shooting (but clearly based on the Columbine school massacre), Elephant, which was set in my home town of Portland, Oregon, where Van Sant has also been based for most of his adult life. The comparisons are fair, given the subject matter, and the seemingly real-time feel and use of tracking shots in both films, but Polytechnique is much, much better than Van Sant’s Palme D’or winner. Van Sant has made some of my favourite films (Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, for example) but he does exhibit some pervy tendencies towards young men in his work, and the shower scene with the two teenage male perpetrators takes you right out of the film and totally lost me on Elephant. Villeneuve shoots the massacre in stark black and white, and lets all the horror play out with flashbacks and flashforwards to tell the audience everything you need to know about the killer, and also the immediate aftermath for the survivors.
The film’s most haunting moment is when the shooter where, after he tells the men to leave aclassroom, he goes on to the remaining women about how he hates feminists. They exclaim “but we’re not feminists!” and then he just shoots them all, killing the majority of them. The entire film is pitched perfectly, with just the right amount of respect for the victims and survivors, and just enough information to understand the mindset of the shooter—but without generating an ounce of sympathy for him. It’s the only film I’ve seen about a school shooting that I like (well, unless you count If… but I don’t) because it completely nails the horrific nature of the crime. It’s done with just the right amount of cinematic style, but is never too showy. It also helps that the film is only 77 minutes long.
The release includes two different versions of the film, one in English and one in French, which were shot simultaneously. The intent was that the film would enter the English-Canadian/American market, and as far as I can tell, Villeneuve approves of both versions without a preference. The film never had much of a release in the UK, with just a London Film Festival screening in 2009 and a Mubi digital release in 2018 (might have been earlier), so BFI’s Blu-Ray release is very welcome. The film speaks for itself, but the package does include a documentary made for the 13th anniversary of the massacre and the trailer. The booklet includes a foreword by Denis Villeneuve, reminiscences by actor Karine Vanasse, a new essay on the film by Jessica Kiang, and a look at the career of Denis Villeneuve by Justine Smith.