One university, one deranged shooter, three lives, no psychoanalysis, no politics, no single overt message or agenda; just emotion and empathy.
On December 6, 1989 a mentally unstable student at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada took a loaded semi-automatic rifle and rampaged the campus specially targeting women who were, as he broadly described, ‘feminists.’ A university, a city and a nation became unified in grief, shock and anger. What has become horrifically an all too frequent story in the news today was nearly unfathomable back in 1989. The dead were morned, stricter gun laws were implemented and the event faded from memory. Twenty years later up and coming Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve decided to cut through the politics, biases and opinions of an increasingly desensitized media cycle and public to show what these kind of tragedies are truly about.
On the prestigious technical school’s campus, on a normal day before winter break a deranged student prepares for an unfathomable onslaught he is about to bring onto his fellow classmates. Another student Valérie prepares for an interview for an internship that will hopefully pave the way for a great career in engineering. Jean is another student that anxiously waits for the break in studies. The narrative revolves around this horrific day in these three peoples lives and how they will never be the same afterwards. All of them briefly crossing paths in equal parts horrific, tragic and even empathetic ways.
Denis Villeneuve is quickly becoming one of my favorite current filmmakers because in his films he separates himself from the overbearing politics, prejudices and perceptions, all the relatively small things, to get to the true heart of the stories he is conveying. In the shocking and riveting Incendies he cuts through the minutia of a conflict in the middle east to find the underlying tragedy in every war; that in war everyone is a casualty. In last year’s Prisoners he gives equal time to the detective procedurals and the grief felt by the families involved in two children abductions. I’ve already talked about previously this year how he cuts through the bizarreness of the doppelgänger story to concentrate on the relationship between ID and Ego personas.
Here he masterfully guides us into his dramatized retelling of an event that we have all now become far too at ease with. The event itself was horrific, the lasting impacts however are even more so. In retelling and adapting these emotionally charged events to any sort of media uproar will undoubtably follow. Villenueve does all he can as a filmmaker to lessen the kind of controversies that follow these kind of projects. To make sure the violence he portrays is not in the least gratuitous the film is shot in stark black and white to reduce the effect of blood on the screen. To not sensationalize the murderer himself he is never even given a name on screen or in the credits, just ‘The Killer’. What we’re left with is only the truest emotions and understanding from that day.
Polytechnique affected me extremely and deeply on a personal level not just because of the subject matter but the location. I went to school not too dissimilar from the one depicted: where conversations about the laws of thermodynamics were talked about in dorm-rooms, people struggled with the extreme workload and pressures that come with the technically intensive curriculum, and the winters are oppressively cold. In effect, I’ve walked the halls that the students are seen running in terror after the slaughter begins, I know people very much like Valérie and Jean, and I shudder to think that there could’ve been ‘The Killer’ amongst the people I went to school with.
We would all like to think that places like the École Polytechnique and Columbine High School are very far away places, “nothing like that could ever happen where I live…” I used to comfort myself by thinking. Well, I live just a state over from Connecticut where it has been nearly two years since Sandy Hook became the most infamous town in New England, then four months afterwards on April 15th the Boston Marathon was bombed. A close friend of mine was right in the middle of those two bombs; and she was standing right in front of one at the finish line but moved only minutes before it went off. Nothing is too far away from me now. Life can and will turn on a razor’s edge, anything can be waiting for us just around the corner, it is about how we deal with that fact and the aftermaths thereof that defines us.
Villeneuve seeks not to hammer the audience with an anti-gun message, or to preach about the need to identify the “warning signs” of mass murderers (there is no single profile for the people that commit these heinous acts, they are as diverse as any other group of people); he is just documenting the event in question and only asks how do you feel about it? Anger? Disgust? Sympathy? Remorse? Sadness? All are valid because of the way the film is constructed, not to bluntly manipulate but to build empathy with. All things being equal, Joseph Stalin probably never actually said the infamous quote: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”; however, it does help to allude to an unsettling thing about human responses to mass killings. To put it another way, we cannot easily comprehend something so tragic as these kinds of mass shootings, as they leave us with so many conflicting emotions that they are near impossible to rationally sort out. The filmmakers here seek to do something that film has the amazing reductive power to do; to make us understand gradually and naturally the incomprehensible and unimaginable.