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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Polytechnique (2009)

On December 6th, 1989, a gunman entered an engineering class at the École Polytechnique. He singled out the nine women in a classroom and ordered the men to leave. Once they had left, he shot them, killing six. After that, he proceeded to stalk the halls of the building, targeting only women, and then killing eight more before killing himself. The survivors in the room, where he took his first victims, recall the shooter choosing them because he deemed them to be feminists. Denis Villeneuve’s third feature-length arrives 30 years later with Polytechnique, a work that is based on the events of that day. We follow two students before, during and after the shooting.

The film does a clever job of giving us context to the climate of the times without lazy expositional scenes keeping us up to date on everything. This is where the film encourages the viewers who are from outside of Canada to look into the massacre and how it affected the nation at the time and ever since. Historical dramas with tricky subject matter have a fine line to walk on - you want to be able to portray events as accurately as possible, but you also want to give the context of it all an emotional anchor. Writing and performing these individuals you only hear about through articles and the Wikipedias of the world is a tough ask, but thankfully the cast and crew manage to do this with powerful effect.

The cast is excellent, with naturalistic, real performances, but the real standout is Karine Vanesse whose extensive interviews and research with survivors form the groundwork of her performance. The subject matter is difficult and sensitive, and watching these actors endure these events, although re-enacted, is clearly close to their hearts as not only Canadians but human beings as well, making us feel every ounce of fear and adrenaline racing through their veins.

Villeneuve’s direction proves once more why he is one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers working today. Ducking and weaving between a slow-burning emotionally drenched drama, to the tense nerve-shredding cold sweat of a thriller. The black and white photography is also a perfect pairing, that doesn’t ever feel gimmicky in its intent but entirely appropriate.

Although a tight 77-minute run time, Polytechnique is by no means a casual watch. Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, it’s a finely crafted retelling of a mass shooting (although Elephant is more loosely based on Columbine rather than a more direct retelling like Polytechnique) that has earned its praises and awards ever since. Visiting Polytechnique gives you a perspective on the consequences which we don’t often see in films that portray tragedies like this, where they mostly stick to the actual event and then be done with it. Although it appears to be a small film on paper (especially considering Villeneuve’s most recent output of films), Polytechnique is massive in what it sets out to achieve: a devastating account of a tragedy that is immensely powerful and an essential watch.

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