Thursday, March 4, 2010

Second Look – Polytechnique

Writer: Jacques Davidts
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Producer: Don Carmody, Maxime Rémillard
Cast: Karine Vanasse, Maxim Gaudette, Sebastien Huberdeau,  Évelyne Brochu, Johanne-Marie Tremblay
Drama, 77 minutes

At a press conference on Monday announcing the nominees for the 2010 Genie Awards, the brilliant film Polytechnique came out on top with a total of eleven nominations including Best Picture and Best Director for Denis Villeneuve. It’s an astounding and deeply moving film, and one that I chose for my top 10 list of 2009. Yet in the following day’s news items, one could see how twenty years later, the Montreal Massacre still inflames the emotions of many. Most of the more appalling things that were posted anonymously on message boards at news sites such as and have since been removed, but some remain such as the following:
Oh yeah - almost forgot - this whole thing has nothing to do with misogynistic Canadians - It has to do with the fact that Marc Lepine's real name was Gamil Gharbi and he was raised by a misogynistic muslim father.
The claim that Marc Lepine was Muslim is an oft repeated lie from hateful misogynists who apparently need to express racism and religious intolerance as well. Lepine was baptized a Catholic and legally changed his name to Marc Lepine when young. His parents separated when he was seven and he hated his father. But even now, some men it seems would conveniently assign his murderous actions to his father’s heritage than to his Catholic upbringing or to misogyny or to gun violence. It appears there are many nasty people out there who secretly agree with the murderer’s anti-feminism and cannot sympathize with his victims.

But from more sane folks, there’s an unfortunately prevalent view that the incident is too tragic an event to bear watching as a movie. That’s probably one reason why the film just did good but not great box office, even though complete versions of the film were made in English and in French so that Canadian audiences wouldn’t need to watch the film with subtitles. Yet most people wouldn’t have a problem watching a World War II film or something equally devastating.

The fact is that terrible events can be at least partially redeemed by beautiful works of art. A great example is Picasso’s Guernica, which is itself referenced in the movie. Polytechnique achieves a comparable emotional depth. It manages to avoid all the potential pitfalls and is not exploitative in the least. It pays tribute to the women and the victims of that fateful day, and doesn’t focus on Lepine.

The film doesn’t even mention his name once, and in the credits he is referred to only as “the killer.” Critics who complained that the film doesn’t give us any deeper understanding about him completely missed the point. The movie wasn't about him, but about the people he affected, and to show how we can be resilient when faced with terrible tragedy. The film would have been far worse and completely misguided if it focused on him, and would have ended up glorifying the killer.

Polytechnique was screened privately for the survivors, victim’s families, students at École Polytechnique and even the shooter’s mother. They were all in agreement that the film was a fitting tribute to those who suffered. I myself was powerfully affected by this and it stayed with me for many days afterwards, but not at all in a bad way. Villeneuve and his filmmaking team accomplished the impossible by turning such a heartbreaking tragedy into a beautiful and uplifting piece of art.

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