Polytechnique

polytechnique

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.

5 thoughts on “Polytechnique

  1. I watched this earlier in the year (before the BFI Blu-ray was announced), and had mixed feelings. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s a definite step up from Villeneuve’s previous work — it feels like the first true “Denis Villeneuve film” as we’ve come to know that. But I was more troubled by who it does and doesn’t give time and attention to — mainly, that it’s perhaps too generous to the gunman. I wrote a pile of notes trying to expand and explain my distaste for that side of it, and one day I’ll try to wrangle them into a coherent review! I don’t think it’s a bad film by any means, but it did leave me feeling conflicted.

    1. Its the earliest Villeneuve film I’ve yet seen, so I was surprised how unmistakeably ‘Villeneuve’ it was, particularly the nods to how BR2049 would look years later. That being said, while film-makers would I’m sure say its all the same technique and just orders of scale, its still quite extraordinary that not all that many years after Polytechnique he would be making such a huge epic as BR2049.

      I agree the most problematic thing about Polytechnique is how it dealt with the killer, because its pretty clear that while Villeneuve was intending to focus positively on the victims and not to indirectly glorify the killer or his actions/motives, he kept on being pulled in that direction if only by portraying that violence. Its made me think, not so much how lazy it must be to make exploitation films out of stuff like this, but how difficult it must be not to lose control of it and have it veer into exploitation. Must be a little like trying to rein in CGI in a sci fi blockbuster and not let it run amok with ever-flashier visuals until it becomes the be-all and end-all, losing any character focus.

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  4. Tom

    I saw your recent post for Enemy and then below saw this too. I really really have to catch up on Villeneuve’s back catalogue, he is an astonishing filmmaker. Fuck, no one saw BR2049 but that might be one of my favorite films of the last decade. It’s pure cinema, but done intelligently.

    Polytechnique is one in particular I’ve been meaning to watch. I actually thought this was his debut film, so I have some work ahead of me. Maybe as part of a marathon runup to the Dune release….

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