We’ve gained almost exactly two decades hindsight on the École Polytechnique Massacre, on that wintry afternoon when 25-year-old Marc Lépine, armed with a knife and a semiautomatic rifle, killed 14 women and injured ten women and four men before turning the gun on himself. As attested to in statements to victims and his suicide note, Lépine was motivated by a contempt for feminism, something he seemed to possess only the vaguest notion of but which he claimed ruined his life. The abysmal stupidity of these sorts of hate crimes constitutes an enormous part of their enduring horror, so the question as to what any society can do to come to terms with events like those of December 6, 1989 remains difficult to answer. What works of art can contribute to the discussion, especially those designed to convey narrative, is equally elusive. If there’s a story in the École Polytechnique Massacre, the central character would seem to have to be Lépine, prompting further questions about what, if anything, can we learn from him.
Quebec director Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique attempts to counter this apparent inevitability by de-centralizing its narrative, dividing focus between the nameless assassin and some of those who would survive his attack. The obvious model for this circular structure is Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which dramatized the 1999 Columbine Massacre. Yet where Elephant’s formalism lent Van Sant sufficient distance to allow minimal editorializing, to encourage something closer to mediation on the event and avoid facile conclusions, Polytechnique has a difficult time steering clear of artificial parallels and generic constraints. In some senses this is, strictly speaking, a slasher movie, as well as a tale of unrequited love soaked in dramatic irony. It feels at times like a misguided version of the “God’s Lonely Man” movie, à la Taxi Driver, Werner Herzog's Woyzeck or more recently The Assassination of Richard Nixon. The slow push-ins on the face of the killer or on a print of Picasso’s Guernica are ominous without really feeling imbued with purpose or precision. The killer’s narration feels suspiciously like a filmmaker’s apologia, a way of assuring us he knows his Lépine stand-in is an idiot and an asshole. Unlike my experience of watching Elephant, I found myself wondering if Polytechnique wasn’t succumbing to form for form’s sake.
None of this is meant to dismiss the film’s value outright, particularly if we consider the difficulty of approaching such a fraught subject. Polytechnique’s compassion for the victims can be found in several smaller details, such the way a female student, conflicted about using her sexuality to secure an internship, wobbles as she walks in high heels. (Something in this subplot echoes 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days more strongly than anything in Elephant.) But it’s interesting to compare the ambitious Polytechnique to the relatively modest 1952 film The Sniper—newly released on DVD and reviewed on this blog just two days ago—a fictional thriller whose social message is secondary to its noir ambiance. The Sniper invokes compassion for both victims and killer by simply telling its story as cleanly and efficiently as possible. Of course, we watch The Sniper with very different eyes than we watch Polytechnique—the former film’s potential resonance is essentially left up to us to discover, while we can’t help but search the latter for some fragment of insight to cling to and justify its existence.
PS: Polytechnique was filmed in both French and English, ostensibly as a method of gaining a wider audience. While far from unprecedented, this approach seems especially ill-advised when dealing with a recent event as tender as the Montreal Massacre. On one hand it feels goofy to hear people speaking English in a context where the audience knows the characters are Francophone. It's difficult too, to ignore the political connotations, however beside the point, ie: these women had their lives taken, and now their language is taken as well. Like I said, you could argue it's kind of beside the point, but if you think such matters aren't attended to in Canada, you probably have never set foot in the province of Quebec.