Denis Villeneuve’s harrowing Polytechmique was his third film, and watching it for the first time now, following all those films that came after – Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049– its really quite fascinating seeing one of his early works and spotting within it all those signs and precursors of his later work. Indeed, with its stark urban landscape frozen in snow and blizzards, in some ways this film most closely resembles BR2049, but it certainly confirms Villeneuve’s fascination with place, and landscape, being characters in his films just as much as the actors. Perhaps this is something he took from watching Ridley Scott’s films (he was certainly the ideal director for a Blade Runner sequel).
Polytechnique is based upon a real event- a massacre in a Montreal school in 1989, but it obviously also indirectly references so many school shootings before and after. Shot in stark black and white its an unforgiving, brutal film that is at the same time curiously delicate, an usual combination that reminded me of Arrival and BR2049 in how it all feels weirdly poetic even though its so damned disturbing. The violence is quite restrained but so sudden its really quite shocking; indeed, when watching it, the film feels really violent but really its more suggestive than graphic. Clearly Villeneuve wanted to do justice to the victims of the massacre and deliberately avoided being sensationalist or in any way exploitive. It’d be so easy to make this a violent horror film depicting the same terrible events, but that might well indirectly glorify or even validate the actions of the killer, and Villeneuve really wants to focus on the students without defining them by the events they were caught up in or the killers helpless rage at the world.
Having been something of a Villeneuve aficionado since seeing his film Prisoners, I’ve been very curious about watching his earlier works and was so glad that the BFI have finally been able to give this a well-overdue Blu-ray release for us here in the UK. The film looks excellent and the disc includes both versions of the film (each scene with any dialogue was actually shot twice, once in French and then again in English- I watched the French version with English subs as that is the most authentic). One benefit of this release being done now is that it improves on the original Region A release of several years ago by being able to include a splendid documentary Polytechnique: Ce qu’il reste du 6 décembre (2019, 52 mins), which was made for the 30th anniversary of the Montreal massacre, featuring interviews with survivors, witnesses and family members of those that died. Its an excellent companion piece to the film, really informative and demonstrates how much the film was faithful to the actual events; its one of those docs that just increases ones respect for a film.
And how much of a small world this world really is: the star (and a co-producer) of the film is Karine Vanasse, who is so familiar to me from her four-year stint as detective Lise Delorme in the crime thriller Cardinal. She’s excellent here, obviously made some years before that 2017-2020 series, but clearly showing she was destined for success back then. As for Villeneuve, well, its obvious he was a film-marker to follow by the quality of this film. This is a great release from the BFI and I’d heartily recommend it. It isn’t an easy watch and can be quite disturbing but its sensitivity to the events marks it as something quite remarkable.