Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Films du Fleur de Lys: Polytechnique

Polytechnique (2009, Denis Villeneuve)

Not long ago we reviewed another Denis Villeneuve film, Incendies, which offered a sprawling family drama that not only covered 3 separate generations but also took the protagonists half way around the world. Polytechnique, while concerned with an event whose emotional, psychological and historical ramifications are as dense as they are unforgettable, is a far more contained film, the thrust of its plot occurring really in only one location. On December 6th, 1989, a very disturbed young man entered Montréal’s École Polytechnique with a Mini-14 rifle, chose a random class in which he separated the male and female students, and proceeded to gun down the latter group. His deranged vendetta against women and feminism at large continued as the killer walked the hallways of the school, on the prowl for more female students. After slaughtering 14 women and injuring several others, he finally took his own life.
Denis Villeneuve’s project may not be a documentary, but it is directly inspired by eye-witness accounts and the scenes revealing the senseless massacre are sufficiently dark and brutal in their depiction of the panic and psychosis which reigned supreme on that eventful day. Maxime Gaudette, who was a lead in Incendies ,  plays the killer, Karine Vanasse, one of Québec’s best and brightest actors, plays a female survivor and Sébastien Huberdeau plays a male survivor who sees the killer up close, practically defying him before leaving the classroom where the very first victims are about to perish. Villeneuve weaves what seems like a simple plot, but whose story explores the lives of the two survivors just before the start of the nightmare as well as some time afterwards. In essence, what transpires on screen is simple in a visceral kind of way which can send shivers down the spine of any viewer, but the overall movie is equally interested in the psychology and emotional status of the characters who witnessed the event first hand. It’s a juggling act that requires a particular kind of depth and intelligence as a storyteller. Teeter too much towards the visceral side of things and the point may be missed. Play too much on the emotional side and the movie might lack proper insight and any sort of ‘food for thought.’ By the end credits, Polythechnique struck me as a good film, one for which I much appreciated the ambition on display, but whose cards weren’t played in exactly the right way. A solid hand, no doubt, but no royal flush, if you will.

The first thing the viewer notices is the striking black and white colour palette. The decision to film in black and white is a curious one. On a purely visual level, it makes the movie look attractive (I say that because I simply adore black and white colour palettes in films), but also, as one can imagine, hands Polytechnique a cold look. Early December in Montréal, one of the most horrific days in the history of the city, these render the cinematography style a pertinent one. Another idea that crawled in my mind as I watched the movie unfold was the popular usage of the term ‘to see things in black and white’, meaning that a person’s opinion on a given matter is rather intransigent. ‘It is good’ or ‘it is bad,’ and so on and so forth. Such is the way many people have analyzed the École Polytechnique massacre, from very single minded perspectives. Others have looked backed on the events of December 6th 1989 with more nuance, attempting to relate the murderous act to male-female relations in the West, in Canada, in Québec culture, in the 80s, in the 20th century, etc. The latter group don’t see the massacre through a black and white prism, while the former are more prone to such analysis. How should one assess what transpired? What is proper reaction? Denis Villeneuve’s film isn’t here to dictate who is right or wrong in the debate, but here is a rare case in which the cinematography alone is enough to make one stop for a moment and ponder on how the story should be remembered or thought of because of its thematic reverberations on how the story unfolds. Think about it for just a moment. Black and white films are called such, but in actuality they have a lot of gray.

The performances are quite good all around, with special mention going to the three leads naturally. Karine Vanasse’s career has skyrocketed in the last 8 or 9 years and once again she makes a strong case for why she should be considered one of the province’s best leading ladies. Her character’s arc resonates the strongest out of the three who take center stage, as she has to go through some personal and minor sexism on the morning of the massacre, then witnesses a massacre which is bathed in sexism of the most brutish kind, and finally, in a few scenes occurring some years in the future, symbolically asserts her womanhood. The range of emotions she is propelled through is vast and Vanasse is up to the task on every single occasion. Maxime Gaudette’s task is the most unglamorous, interpreting a troubled young man who won’t be earning many viewer’s sympathy. In his eyes is a hint of more than mere frustration, but also sadness. Of course his actions are unforgivable, but there are a few moments, albeit brief, when the emotions conveyed through his gazes make the viewer believe that, as delusional as he may unfortunately be, the killer is truly a broken man, even if his reasons for feeling that way are ludicrous. The fact that Gaudette succeeds in showing a minimal amount of honesty and realism within this character is worth of some praise. Finally, Sébastien Huberdeau’s performance as a young adult haunted by what he saw that day and one decision in particular that he made just as the killing spree began is believable and at times very touching.  

With a raw and controversial story (most of which basically tells itself since this did actually happen), some beautiful cinematography and a highly talented trio of leading actors, what could possibly hold the film back from reaching those glorious cinematic heights that one might expect a film of this nature to soar at? In simple terms, Denis Villeneuve tries to put too much into his movie, which results in a series of parts which, in this reviewer’s opinion, are more solid than they are when combined together to make a film. The framing of the plot is split into three time frames. One concentrates on the central characters on the day of the massacre before it begins, another naturally explores their situations as the event unfolds, while a third reveals how the Karine Vanasse and Sébastien Huberdeau characters live on some time after. Here is where the question of personal taste comes into play, but were I a filmmaker who desired to explore the École Polytechnique massacre, I would have either created a 2 or 3 part miniseries or a 2 ½ to 3 hour film. This is taking into consideration that I want to study three characters, that is, a young woman who is to survive, a young man who is to survive and the killer himself. To top it off I want to explore who the survivors are both before and after the massacre. In my humble opinion, that requires more than the 77 minutes of running time we get here. I sincerely believe the strategy in having a three part storyline to be a useful one, one that can adequately pay respect to those who were not only made to suffer physically and psychologically on that very day, but for years to come. I don’t think enough time is allotted to the before and after segments. The individual parts we get are fascinating, well acted and well directed, but together feel as though we aren’t getting very much of any, or at least not enough to let the themes breath. Polytechnique is an artistically well made film and at times emotionally affecting, but I wasn’t floored because I never felt I was given enough.

The film earned both the admiration of scorn of movie goers and critics upon its theatrical release in the winter of 2009. Some said it was a bold project in how it tackled a subject which resonates in the most powerful and complicated ways in Québec society two decades onwards. Others were nervous and angry about a major film which used such a tragedy as the launching point for scenes of explicit violence. I think that the more artistically inclined among us movie lovers, which I assume means most of the people who visit this site regularly, will fall in the former category and appreciate the ambition of the project. Even though I wish the film had served some more, I too admired the effort.

*One last little note: In an all too generous effort to gain a wider audience than the film will probably ever have, Polytechnique was shot twice. No, that was not a typo. The film was shot twice. On the Blu-ray released by Mca (Universal), the viewer has the option of watching the film in French or in English, the second version not being dubbed, but completely acted by everyone involved, only they are talking in English instead of French. How's that for bilingualism in Canada!


Movie Guy said...

This is a great post you have here...I'm definitely a follower of your blog.

Please stop by my site and follow my movie reviews as well...thanks!


CS said...

I was blown away by this film. It even made my top ten list of last year. Found it far more engaging than Elephant and other films that have dealt with this subject matter

edgarchaput said...

@Movie Guy: Thank you very much. I paid a quick visit to your own site and thought it to be pretty good. Sometimes all one needs to a brief review as opposed to some of the marathons that I put my readers through sometimes.

@CS:'Polytechnique' definitely has its share of staunch supporters. I think I can see why people love it so much despite the shortcomings I experienced with it. I did love 'Elephant' though, which I think I'd place higher than 'Polytechnique.'