Polytechnique (2009)

4 Jun

I have not seen Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. In a way, I chose not to see it. Part of me feels that some things should not be made into films. But in another way, I see that movies can be a coping mechanism: by putting the limitations of filmic structure on an incident such as a school shooting, it puts it in a context which we can understand it and then accept it. Everything I have read about Elephant has suggested that Van Sant withholds this kind of context, as he should: such an act of mindless violence doesn’t deserve to be dramatized and dissected so we can understand it and cope with it. He presents a hard world, where things happen regardless of why, providing a reason for what happened would only provide some kind of justification.

Polytechnique is not a film about columbine, but is rather the attack on the Montreal Polythechnique School in the late 80’s. The film provides reasons for what happened, coming straight out of the killers mouth. Where there is a danger in having the killer justify his murders, it works in the film because the storylines in the films multi-arc structure serve to show that his reasons are pure fiction.  His hatred of feminism and feminists, and blaming his anti-social behaviour  on the inequality that is being put on men from the historically unimportant female sex is completely obliterated when we see Valérie, the female protagnist we follow in one of the storylines, applying for an engineering job. She is told that women do not typically apply for jobs in aeronautical engineering since it is harder to raise a family at the same time. Both of these scenes are rather simplistic and are transparent thematically, they merely serve to show the disconnect between the killer and the real world.

This disconnect is also apparent in the filmmaking. One of the more striking elements in the film is that it is present in full black and white. Contemporary cinema is quite reluctant to have a full feature in black and white, it makes it harder for the audience to become fully immersed in the film. In shooting the film in black and white, the audience is fully aware they are watching a film. In this kind of film, with scenes of such high intensity and horror, a distance between the audience and subject allows us to witness the atrocity rather than feeling part of it. The black and white image also reflects the way that the killer sees the world, as a skewed version of the real. The harsh coldness of the image on the screen reflects on the violence depicted as well as the cold and snowy Montreal climate the film takes place in.

The way that the violence is depicted is brilliant in a way. The filmmakers have to walk an almost impossible line to make the film work without exploitation and without shying away from horror. They are indeed able to achieve this with sudden graphic violence with little or no reason and justification. The camera doesn’t linger or shy away, but merely manages to leave an imprint with each shot fired. The scene where the killer in the classroom is particularly disturbing and violent, but only manages to show the killer for what he is rather than focusing on the violence that he is committing.

What is probably the most interesting aspect of the film is the different worlds that it presents. There are three separate stories that are told through the film, all of which intersect during the massacre itself. First we are in the world of the murderer, which is alone and devoid of both men and women, we only hear his delusional manifesto and confession through letters he writes before the attack. We then enter the world of his female victims as represented by Valérie and Stéphanie as they prepare for engineering finals. What is striking about the portrayal of social structure in Polytechnique is the way that it is segmented between male and female. There are several shots of men together and women together, and rarely do we see men and women together socially: they exist in separate worlds. We then follow Jean-François through the world of the enlightened man: he crosses between the world of the male and female freely, asking Valérie for help with class and generally treating women as people the same as him.

There is affection between Jean-François and Valérie, and in another version of events that is what this film would be about. But that is all taken away, and I think that is the real point of the film, such a pointless act of violence changed the course of all these people’s lives.  Those who survive are left to live in a world where these things could happen, where even the enlightened man is left helpless at the hands of the evil around him, where sometimes the glass ceiling doesn’t break, where feminism is completely necessary rather than the post-feminist world that the women thought they went to school in.

Much like the columbine killers and numerous other shooting sprees,the killer commits suicide after his massacre. Leaving those survivors to live in the world he made for them when he is free of it. The harshness of the reality of the film rings true to life: that sometimes the bad guys win and the rest are just left to pick up the pieces.


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