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.

Cardinal Season Four: Until the Night

cardinal4This post is proving a little bittersweet: anyone who has read this blog over the past few years will possibly remember my positive reviews for the past three seasons of the Canadian crime drama series: season one here, season two here, season three here and I’m pleased to say I think that the fourth season, Until the Night, is possibly the best of the lot. Unfortunately it also appears that, by all reports, season four is the final season, which sets up that quandary where its great for a show to go out on a high and leaving fans wanting more, but its naturally sad to see a show end when its so good.

I’m not really much of a fan of these crime dramas- I think they universally suffer from a propensity for a genre-wide crime drama escalation war, in which the serial killers get smarter and more cunning and the murders more elaborate and gory until it approaches the level of farce- I think much of this is due to the continuing impact of films like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven. Its a bit like the Lord of the Rings films ‘needing’ bigger and louder battles and Star Wars films needing bigger and more spectacular space battles, until it all collapses under the excess. Certainly the second season of Cardinal suffered from that, and the third to a lesser extent. Fortunately Into the Night dials things back considerably, and while still quite complex, at heart its a pretty basic tale of revenge, and one with some emotional gravitas too. Sometimes less is more, and I certainly that is true of this fourth season. Besides that, this is just simply a damned fine story with great writing and sense of drama/mystery/tension, with a bit of horror thrown in.

Billy Campbell again returns as Police Detective Cardinal, a man haunted by his past who with his younger partner Lise Delorme  (Karine Vanasse) investigate crimes in the fictional city of Algonquin Bay – an area of great beauty on the edge of the wintry wilderness. This season emphasises that wintry aspect, with a series of deaths unfolding in which people are abducted and then left to die of exposure in remote isolated locations. The detectives have to find some link between the victims and a pattern to the locations of their deaths, and the complicated but professional nature of the abductions quickly lean them to suspect these are contract killings. Who hired the killer, and why, becomes as much the focus as the identity of the killer himself.

As usual the show is beautifully shot – you can feel the cold just from the snow-swept imagery and it conveys a wonderfully tactile, atmospheric sense of being there. The script is tight and rarely wavers into the ridiculous – often if I watch these crime dramas I suffer a few moments of ‘WTF?’ that breaks the tension/sense of reality (again, that pressure to ‘better’ past dramas and raise the stakes post-Seven etc). The two leads are as great as ever (can’t understand why we don’t see more of Campbell, and Vanasse is surely destined for more success) and this season even throws in a regular face from The Expanse. I left the show with a sense of satisfaction at a great season but yeah, some considerable sadness if this is indeed the end. You never know of course, never say never and all that.

Cardinal Season Three: By the Time You Read This

There’s something oddly comforting about the arrival of another season of Cardinal, almost like the return of an old friend: regular readers will possibly recall my reviews of seasons one and two of the show, and I’m pleased to report this third season is surprisingly good- much better, infact, than season two. Indeed, on reflection this third season might actually cast dubious events of that sophomore season in a fairer light, chiefly that of the suicide of Cardinal’s unstable wife, Catherine Well, I say ‘suicide’ but the inference of that season’s finale is the crux of this season. When Cardinal himself begins to believe the death was suspicious I rather felt familiar old demons of guilt were pushing him in the wrong direction, and into another seasonal pit of self-loathing, but it transpires he has every reason to have his doubts.

Continuing the series tradition of differing seasons (season one set in Winter, the second in Summer), By the Time You Read This is set in the fall, and its predictably gorgeous.  The semi-rural locale of Cardinal (Alonquin Bay, a fictional version of North Bay, Ontario) is one of its biggest selling-points, almost lending it a Twin Peaks-kind of vibe at times, and its wide-open golden forests and bitterly-cold windswept lakes are a lovely diversion visually. The cast, led by Billy Campbell as the title character, all hushed commentary and craggy, life-worn features, is as fine as ever, and I definitely think Karine Vanasse as his investigative partner Lise Delorme has really come into her own here. Both leads underline the series tendency for underplaying everything and not relying on too many shock tactics- there is a fragility about everything, and a calmness that is refreshing, especially after season two’s straining of credibility;  a definite return to form.

This third season benefits by improved writing, with four arcs that ultimately tie together in a very satisfying manner. I’m tempted to suggest it manages this over a six-episode season far better than Game of Thrones managed, but that feels like a cheap shot. Oh okay, I went there. But anyway, it throws these storylines in the air: the first is a series of grisly murders perpetrated by an odd group of End of the World nutters, another is a series of violent robberies at ATM machines, another the department chief being involved in a bloody suicide, and the fourth being Cardinals initially, we assume, misguided theory about his late wife’s death.  It seems unlikely at the outset, but the arcs really do tie in together rather well and form a satisfying whole at the conclusion- yes, they manage a perfect landing compared to GOTs dodgy near-crash in the dirt. The personal angle, and our empathy for Cardinals plight and self-doubt regards Catherine’s death is what really raises this season. I do think this has been a marked improvement this year on what I felt a fairly exploitative previous season.

So it definitely seems there is plenty of life in this show yet, and indeed a fourth season is coming, hopefully next year. I appreciate that this is likely one of those shows lost in all the noise of bigger, more popular series on Netflix, Sky Atlantic etc but it’s certainly well worth tracking down. Stuck on BBC’s Saturday night foreign drama slot on BBC4 its unfortunately a victim of Autie Beeb’s scheduling and it’s a wonder I manage not to miss it whenever a new series suddenly drops.