Starring: Karine Vanasse, Evelyne Brochu
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Rating: 14A (English version)
Playing at: Mayfair Theatre, today through Sunday, and Tuesday
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The paradox may sound grotesque, but it must be stated loud and clear: director Denis Villeneuve and the cast of Polytechnique have transformed the tragedy of the Montreal Massacre into a work of profound beauty.
Only one thing in the world can produce such a potent act of creative redemption, and it’s present in almost every frame of this reconstituted nightmare based on the events of Dec. 6, 1989, at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique: love.
By focusing his lens on the friendships, the everyday acts of kindness, and the heroic acts of survival, strength and forgiveness prompted by a sickening cascade of hate, Villeneuve sets up a stark contrast.
We know what’s going to happen, and yet, we still hope for a different outcome. We hope the killer will change his mind. We hope the women who were destined to sit in the doomed classroom decide to skip class. We hope the humanity of our everyday reality prevails.
This residue of hope in the face of inevitable calamity becomes something of a lifeline, pulling us into the heart of the dark vortex, but also helping us recover after the storm.
On screen, this gossamer thread of empathy begins with the image of two women getting dressed. Valerie (Karine Vanasse) and Stephanie (Evelyne Brochu) are roommates, and we meet these two engineering students on the morning of Dec. 6.
Valerie is getting ready for a job interview, and she can’t decide what to wear. Stephanie rides to her friend’s sartorial rescue, then wishes her good luck with the job.
It’s a brief scene that would seem entirely insignificant if the day unfolded like any other, but life-altering events have a way of making the banal feel surreal, and Villeneuve conveys this through the visual style of the movie.
Shot in low-contrast black-and-white with hand-held cameras, the movie borrows vérité non-fiction elements to ensure the facts behind the narrative are not lost in a vulgar parade of Technicolor action. There’s a dreamy quality to the frames as well. Villeneuve lets light blast through the lens as often as possible, creating moments when the screen flashes white and flirts with overexposure.
By avoiding heavy contrast in the frames, and keeping everything in a grey zone, the movie resists the impulse to reduce everything to absolutes — both tonally and literally.
Even the killer, who is never mentioned by name, finds an element of humanity. Played by Maxim Gaudette, a young actor with puppy-dog eyes, the villain is rendered as nothing more than a weakling with severe anti-social tendencies.
The killer appears entirely benign until he marches into a classroom, separates the men from the women, and opens fire on the unarmed females lined up against the wall.
By the time this happens, we already know two of the women in that class: Valerie and Stephanie. We care about them, and in the seconds before blackness, we watch them hold hands in one last beautiful gesture of compassion.
On the other side of the door stands Jean-François (Sebastien Huberdeau), entirely helpless.
A good man who can do nothing to stop the bloodshed, Jean-François’s pain is palpable as he sits there in shock, and through his eyes, we not only grasp the dire emptiness of survivor guilt — we can map the ripples of hate, and see just how far the blast radius reaches into the subconscious.
What we’re witnessing is nothing less that the instantaneous fragmentation of a collective reality, but Villeneuve resists any urge to go big in the face of monolithic drama, and stays small, human and intimate.
The entire cast proves they’re equally talented in French and English because each scene was shot twice — first in French, then in English, to avoid the awkward intrusion of a dub or subtitles.
A beautiful ode to the strength and beauty of the fallen, and a timely reminder that misogyny remains a potent threat, Polytechnique is a film that inspires more than it depresses and enlightens instead of preaches.
If there was ever any doubt as to the redemptive power of art, Polytechnique offers proof that even the ugliest side of humanity can be transformed.