Sunday, November 6, 2016


Welcome back to this mini-series of reviews of the feature films* of revered filmmaker Denis Villeneuve in the lead-up to his latest film Arrival. This second review in the series is for his 2009 film Polytechnique.

Polytechnique is a film directed by Denis Villeneueve and tells the story of the violent mass school shooting at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec (also known as the Montreal Massacre). The film follows the story largely through the perspectives of two students, Jean-François (Sebastian Huberdeau) and Valérie (Karine Vanasse), as they experience this shooting and the aftermath. The film stars Huberdeau and Vanasse as our lead characters and Maxim Gaudette as the killer.

I will not bury the lead with my thoughts on this film: it is brilliant but also very difficult and heavily disturbing. Having just experienced this for the first time I have to confess that I was not fully ready for the wave of emotions that hit me when I watched this. I think what makes this film as brilliant as it is is how understated about everything it is and, kind of as a result, how realistic (and thus disturbing) it was. Villeneuve directed this incredibly well and somehow managed to take a horrifying story and tell it in a way that was so calm and somehow normal that really enhanced the feelings I was able to get from it. The film shows shootings, moments of heroism, and running from danger and all of it just felt surreally ordinary. This kind of ordinary surrealism is something that anyone who has ever been in a genuinely traumatic experience can kind of relate to which makes this film assaulting on the senses in a way.

In addition to the calmness, this film was incredibly realistic to the point it was very difficult to separate it from reality. This is a true story and one that is kind of burned into me by virtue of it being a big deal in Canada (where I’m from). The mark of a great cinematic adaptation of a true story is certainly cinematic realism and this film nails that. I believed all of the actors in this story and what they were doing and why. I felt what they felt whether it was fear, anger, or confusion. I also think that there is a real commitment to craft in making this film feel real. For starters, the setting immediately transported me back to Canada. It showed the harshness of winter but not in some absurdist way, just kind of the way it is. It showed buildings and the school in great detail and I had a lot of trouble differentiating it from any of the schools I attended growing up. On top of this, Villeneuve wanted this to reach broad audiences so he shot it twice, once in English and once in Canadian-French. This gives the film an authenticity that is absent in dubbed films, and in the English version the French Canadian accent is present furthering the realism of the setting even more.

I must give due credit to the three main actors: Huberdeau, Vanasse, and Gaudette. Each of them deliver their character perfectly and they all feel like real people. I felt their struggle and their reasoning for what they were doing. I felt like Vanasse really got to shine and she has a moment later in the film that was crushing emotionally and difficult to fully comprehend. Gaudette probably had the most difficult job as the killer though. He had to be a complete sociopath but with a clear reasoning and purpose. Being able to portray a character as inhuman as this killer was, but with enough humanity to see him as real in a story, is difficult and the levels of subtlety Gaudette brings to this really makes that work.

The last thing I want to speak about with respect to this film is how well it is shot. As with all the Villeneuve films I have seen, he moves the camera so creatively and just has interesting shots that say something solely because they are interesting. In this film, for example, there are a couple awkward angled upside down shots that really represent how much the world doesn’t make sense, much like the situation depicted in the film doesn’t make sense (from the perspective of how horrifying the situation is). Additionally, the choice to shoot this in black and white (though in part a ratings choice) worked extremely well. It allowed you to think about the graphic horrors on screen and how they came into being rather than simply being disgusted by any blood or gore on screen.

I have nothing bad to say about this film and I honestly think it is a perfect film about its subject. It punched me in the gut and affected me on a deep emotional level I wasn’t fully ready for. I think that if you’re looking for a powerful movie on this subject you need look no further. This film shows horror and confusion coupled with genuine emotion and calmness in ways most films don’t even bother to aspire for. Villeneuve nailed this film, there is no other way to say it.

Ryan’s Score: 10/10

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* This series of reviews will include all of Villenueve’s features except the 2000 film Malestrom due to it being highly difficult to obtain prior to the start of this series.

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