By Simon Abrams
Like Incendies, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s previous film Polytechnique courts controversy by representing acts of highly politicized violence in a staunchly apolitical light. The movie steeps viewers in a gut-level view of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, a real-life shooting spree at Montreal's École Polytechnique that left 14 people dead and another 14 wounded. Like the political identities of the warring factions in his Oscar-nominated war movie, those casualty figures are ultimately irrelevant to the story -- and in Polytechnique, as in Incendies, Villeneuve does not want us to process the impact of this tragedy in a rational, clinical, way. His approach worked in Incendies, mainly because that film had broad, almost fable-like vision of how terrorism destroys our ties with the past. But Polytechnique -- which finishes a limited run tomorrow at New York's Museum of Modern Art -- is about a specific, real-life event. And yet the director is taking a similar approach, filtering hyper-real melodrama through an unspecific lens. That makes the film problematic and jarring.
At various points, Villeneuve presents events through a sometimes hokey, quasi-mystical perspective. Signs of the times are thrown into an experiential blender and come out looking like portents of things to come. The specific details of daily life at École Polytechnique make the calm-before-the-storm section all the more surreal. Students make photocopies of each other’s notes while “Safety Dance” plays somewhere in the background. Shortly after this, Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau) -- one of the two victims of the massacre that Villeneuve follows from start to finish -- is especially struck by a reproduction of Guernica hanging by the copy machines. These moments stand out because they’re the best examples of how Villenueve selectively practices the Gus Van Sant method of depicting trauma through an impressionistic haze of memory fragments.
I can’t deny the visceral impact of Villeneuve’s hyper-realistic attention to detail. Consider two separate close-ups of characters' hands, which the director invests with an unnerving narrative symmetry. The first sequence is of a gunshot victim’s blood-smeared hand resting on its owner’s stomach; it rises and falls to the rhythm of her jagged breathing. Later in the film, Villeneuve interrupts the shooting with a flash-forward that takes us to a period after the massacre; Jean-François embraces his mother, and we see his hand cradling her back as they hug each other. By comparing these moments in time, Villenueve says that these two very different sets of disembodied hands are linked by the fleeting vitality that energizes them both. The film seems to be saying that hell is a static understanding of the past -- a fixed understanding that Polytechnique challenges, however uneasily.
Polytechnique really finds its footing when it follows “The Killer” (Maxim Gaudette). This part of the film reminds of what my colleague Matt Seitz called Villeneuve’s "quasi-silent movie" approach to melodrama. Body language and simple gestures comprise character in Villeneuve’s films. As such, the grim, ruminative look on the Killer’s face is more important than his meager dialogue. Gaudette moves like a man possessed, and when The Killer finally does open fire for the first time, the viewer feels oddly relieved; it’s like a great weight has been lifted. The amoral implications of that immediate feeling of catharsis are fascinating, especially since the rest of the movie is about the Killer’s crushing short- and long-term impact on his victims. Villeneuve doesn't valorize the Killer’s actions. He makes them look like an essential release of pent-up aggression; the release inadvertently creates ripples in time that warp people’s memories. When Villeneuve closes the film with an upside-down tracking shot of the empty halls of École Polytechnique, it’s reminiscent of the end of Irreversible: we cannot whitewash the past, only try to revisit it with new eyes.
I marvel at the oracular wisdom of that sentiment. But I'm still troubled by the particulars of Villeneuve’s approach. There’s a scene where the Killer reads aloud one of several suicide notes he’s written -- a manifesto-like screed about how he could not stand being harangued by “the feminists” in his school. The fact that he has it out for feminists matters in the film because, just before he mows down a group of women, one of them protests, “We are not feminists.” This line illustrates a key theme in both Incendies and Polytechnique: the arbitrary nature of factionalism. The line also marks the only moment in Polytechnique where dialogue exclusively imparts a vital truth.
What's troubling about it is that, despite the film’s opening disclaimer about the story being fictionalized, the Killer's hatred of feminists is a detail lifted from life; before the real-life mass murderer Marc Lépine shot 28 people, he wrote a note listing feminists as one factor that supposedly sparked his rampage; the fact that all of the 14 dead happened to be women led some to characterize the massacre as an attack on women and feminism. But the movie doesn't explore this, much less put it in context; it just alludes to it. Here, as elsewhere, Polytechnique's selective inclusion of historical fact undermines the movie's ahistorical power. It mixes too much hard reality into a story that could have been set anywhere, at any time, and that seems most comfortable and confident when operating in the fable-like mode that made Incendies so effective. Why did Villeneuve make a film that is specifically about the Montreal Massacre, instead of a film loosely inspired by that tragedy’s impact? It's a mystery -- one that makes this outwardly well-meaning movie hard to swallow.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.