Polytechnique: open to debate


Karine Vanasse plays one of the victims in Polytechnique, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Karine Vanasse plays one of the victims in Polytechnique, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Photograph by: Allen McInnis, The Gazette

It is no great surprise that Polytechnique, the film, is sparking a huge amount of controversy. The debate surrounding this Quebec film heated up this week following the first press screening Monday morning, and the emotional arguments are bound to just get more intense in the days leading up to its release across the province on Friday.

From the moment that word leaked out a few years back that actress-turned-producer Karine Vanasse planned to make a film about the horrific events at the École Polytechnique, the project has divided Quebecers. Some believe it is simply inappropriate to produce a major commercial movie about the shooting rampage at the Montreal engineering school on Dec. 6, 1989, that left 14 young women dead and a society in a state of trauma.

What made this terrible incident all the worse was the fact that the killer, Marc Lépine, had singled out women and that his shooting spree was inspired by a deep-seated psychotic rage against what he perceived as the ills that feminism had imposed on our culture.

In an interview on Radio-Canada Television this week, École Polytechnique communications director Chantal Cantin said the school would be making no public comment about the film and that it had neither encouraged nor hindered the making of the movie.

There are those opposed to the film, but others believe Vanasse is right to force us to relive that horrible day precisely because it’s a crucial moment in our collective history.

In an interview this week, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve admitted that he and Vanasse – who stars in the film and is an associate producer – have indeed encountered plenty of opposition along the way. But their argument is that it is precisely the job of artists to tackle tough and disturbing subjects.

“In terms of the people who say I shouldn’t have made a film about this, I’d just say that for me, there are no bad subjects,” said Villeneuve, who is best-known for his award-winning 2000 art-house film Maelstrom.

“It all depends on what you do with it and what you want to say about it. If you tell me you’re opposed to the film – honestly, I don’t think that, for me as a filmmaker, that’s pertinent. There are no subjects that you can’t make films about. It’s something that caused a lot of anger here, that caused a lot of pain, and the idea that you can’t talk about it? I think that’s really immature. I don’t we should hide our heads in the sand. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I succeeded in making a great film. All I’m saying is that I have no ethical problem whatsoever about making a film about the Polytechnique.”

Don’t go to Polytechnique expecting an in-depth analysis of the events surrounding the murders or a psychological exposé of what drove Lépine to open fire on these female engineering students. Head screenwriter Jacques Davidts has penned a film (with help from Villeneuve and Éric Leca) that simply re-creates what happened that day in December of 1989 at the École Polytechnique. The film, which is billed as a work of fiction based on real events, is unusually short, running just 76 minutes, and is shot in black and white, a decision Villeneuve made in order to create some distance from the gut-wrenching events on screen.

It begins with gunshots, as one female student is shot in a room jam-packed with students making photocopies, then it back-tracks to earlier in the day, as two students (played by Vanasse and Evelyne Brochu) prepare to make their way to the École Polytechnique. Then Villeneuve takes us right into the terror within the school as the killer (Maxim Gaudette), who is never named, prowls through the building, shooting at every woman in his way.

It was Vanasse who came up with the idea of making the film. She was only 6 when the killings took place and was 21 – about the same age as many of the students at the Polytechnique that day – when she began developing the project.

“I was too young to be affected by it when it happened,” Vanasse said. “But I grew up with the consequences of that event, with the debates around it. There is no question that it left its mark on Quebec society, for men and women, and as a young woman, I wanted to learn more about this event.”

In the press notes, Villeneuve contributes an essay in which he suggests that Quebec is one of the most progressive societies in the world in terms of male-female relations and he goes on to make the highly contentious point that “the drama at the Polytechnique couldn’t have happened anywhere but in a society that’s so advanced in this area.” In essence, he’s arguing that Lépine’s rage against feminism was a twisted byproduct of the reality that women do indeed have more power here than they did in the past.

We got into quite the heated back-and-forth on this during our interview, given that it’s far from clear that the relations between the sexes are really that different here compared to, say, Ontario – or New York, for that matter – and it’s even less evident that anything particular to Quebec culture sparked Lépine’s shooting spree.

“We’re an exception here,” Villeneuve said. “There’s a respect toward women here that’s rare.”

But even if what Villeneuve says about Quebec is true, does Marc Lépine really represent anyone other than himself? Did his monstrous act actually say something about the state of relations between men and women?

“I think Marc Lépine was a nut and he doesn’t represent anyone when he does something like that,” Villeneuve said.

“The only thing I try to say in the film is that the sharing of power between men and women creates a fear and a rage amongst men in general. It creates a certain tension. There’s an anger there and the events at the Polytechnique underline that that anger exists in men, whether they’re conscious of it or not. It’s something that will eventually disappear, but it’ll take decades to happen. For sure there are men that are open to all this, but it creates a tension in society. And the Polytechnique shooting is just an exaggeration of that anger.”

Polytechnique was filmed in both French and English, and versions in both languages will open here Friday, Feb. 6.


Are you planning to go see Polytechnique? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.


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Karine Vanasse plays one of the victims in Polytechnique, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Karine Vanasse plays one of the victims in Polytechnique, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Photograph by: Allen McInnis, The Gazette

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Dorrie Rizzo
February 13, 2009 - 8:47 AM
 What a shame... what a shame it is to not have given the Polytechnique victims the heroic title they could've earned thru such a movie. Giving the victims a reason for dying by sending out a message to society would've made them heroes. Instead, the movie portrays this awful awful tragedy as a rampage by some guy who simply "lost it" in a very organised fashion. Basically, we left the victims' families without a reson for their loved ones deaths. Sending out a message to society on the real meaning of feminism or by exposing the murderer's turning point, we could've at least tried to understand what could have been the cause or how to avoid such a tragedy. Why didn't the movie expose the murderer's childhood? Why didn't the movie explain to the audience how he was raised in a home filled with faux-feminism? I wonder: if i were a man, how would i feel after seeing the movie? Would i have sympathized with the murderer? Who knows! At this point, i wouldn't find it hard to believe since more of the sympathetical emotions were attributed to the murderer's role in the movie, rather than the victims. The victims were all strong headed and "robotic" in their daily routine. Big disappointment! This would've been a GREAT opportunity for sending out a message to society, due to the popularity of the film. Had i been given the opportunity to screenwrite such a story, i would make sure to make it count. Rigt now, those victims died for no cause at all... It just doesn't seem fair to me to cash in on something like that.
February 06, 2009 - 9:49 AM

While I also usually appreciate Mr.Kelly's insight and commentaries, I really must completely disagree with how he views the film. Having seen the film last Monday, I think Polytechnique (which is a project that could have easily gone wrong - but somehow didn't) is a beautiful and, granted, difficult film to watch. Every single shot in the film is brilliant, and except for one scene in particular, Villeneuve is merely suggesting the incredible violence perpetrated rather than dramatically and sensationnaly exposing it. In that light, the film does indeed reach a poetic lyricism with its stark imagery - but what could be more fitting when illustrating such a bleak and horrible day? After all, isn't lyricism more thoughtful than straight-out substanceless sensationalism? The film is also highly respectful of the memory of the victims. Yes, it revives a wound in all of us, but I think that it is a film that gently asks the viewer to reach under the rug and relive this event that is a part of our history. For those like me, who weren't born when the tragedy happened, it is a necessary viewing simply to emotionally grasp and ascertain this atrocity. As for the 76 minutes running time, I think Mr.Kelly's comment of it barely being the accepted length of a feature is irrelevant. When you see the film, you will understand that every scene is necessary and thoughtful, and incredibly sober. For those who haven't seen it, I suggest you do not judge the film before. Villeneuve is a wise, talented and sensible director. The last thing he and Karine Vanasse want to do is offend you.

dorothy henaut
February 05, 2009 - 1:09 AM
 I think Brendan Kelly, whose comments I usually appreciate, missed the point of the film, Polytechnique. It was not about the man who killed, it was about the impact of his murderous attack on the victims, their families, their friends, other students, and in fact most montrealers. It was about the fact that the impact of the murders echoes through time to the present day. I was shocked that Kelly thought the only important thing was the killer and why he did it. Why wouldn't the victims be more important -- the victims in the broadest sense of the word? I am also astounded at how many people are willing to judge a movie they haven't seen. Shades of a superstitious world! I saw the film Monday night, and it is absolutely superb. Respectful of the people on the screen and also of the audience. There is less violence in this film than in most blood-and-guts dramas seen on TV or in the movies. The film is compassionate and moving. GO SEE IT FOR YOURSELVES
February 04, 2009 - 7:47 PM
 There is nothing new to be told, nowhere to be guided to find some answers. The film director of such films, "Un 32 août sur terre", " Maelström" and the upcoming " Incendies" based on Wadji Mouawad play, will attempt without aim or struggle to make a motion. Well this is my view and expectations.
February 04, 2009 - 7:36 PM
 based on this article, this movie seems to be a poorly made Guy van sant's 2003 Elephant copycat. Why would I spend my time with the end result of such a lack of creativity ? No, thanks.
February 04, 2009 - 11:55 AM
 At the end of the day, this is a movie. A documentary or drama, it is still a movie where viewers can be moved and educated or trivialized and ridiculed. Over the years we have seen dramatic films concerning events in history, some political some nefarious where dramatic license has either destroyed and muddied or brought clarity and education to an event or issue. Therefore, given the seriousness of this murder that took place 20 years ago, the subject will have be carefully crafted. On another point, one must hope this film doesn’t crucify an event so effectively as did Passchendaele, how one makes a love story of an event where 16 000 young men and boys die in the mud still irks. The message here is, given the seriousness, there is no room for error, if done well true art can arise from a tragedy.
Hazel Kenny
February 03, 2009 - 9:18 PM
 In 1989 I was in Vancouver for the year when I learned about the Polytechnique tradegy that occured in my home town. As I watched the TV news showing the pictures of the victims, tears flowed to see the face of one I recognized as my childhood friend. It's almost twenty years later, and it still feels like yesterday. I still have all the newspaper clippings. Should this movie be? Yes... we need to understand the reality of the fear and courage of what these women have gone through. The emotional helplessness and terror of wanting to do something but can't; Seeing people you know and care for die in front of you; To understand their reality at that moment in time. As devastating as this movie may be, we can learn from it too. Today, women have the courage knowing there are no boundries to their career possibilities; School violence awareness has moved forward; Gun control issues have come to light; to name a few. Will I see this movie? ... Yes. It will be painfull, and a box of kleenex will acompany me. To the yonger generation, may you understand what has happened in your history; ... and the older generation, as I, ... may we find peace and closure in remembering our fallen loved ones. (In memory of my friend Maud Haviernick).
February 03, 2009 - 4:15 PM
 Absolutely not!
February 03, 2009 - 1:03 PM
 I have no problem whatsoever with this movie being made. Some of the best movies every made are chronicles or based on real life events and tragedies: Titanic, Schindler's List, All Quiet on the Western Front, Munich, Saving Private Ryan, A Thin Red Line, Blood Diamond, and many more. So to complain about this one is foolish and shortsighted. A movie was going to get made about this at some point or another, and depending on how good this version is it may get made again. Just like their may be movies about the shootings at Dawson, or the killings at Va.Tech in the future. I think the arts have a certain responsibility to chronicle key events in history to offer the opportunity for younger generations the opportunity to learn from these key moments in history.
February 03, 2009 - 11:28 AM
 I will go see the movie. i was very young when it happened and don`t really remember all that much about what transpired that day. If we were to never make movies about sad tragic events then Flight 93 should never have been made and yet it was without causing harm. It was also a controversial movie and those who didn`t want to relive the events of that day, didn`t go see the movie. Same applies here. Nobody is forcing this movie on anyone. You don`t want to go see it-fine- it`s your right, but don`t take that right away from those who do.
February 03, 2009 - 9:58 AM
 Cashing in on this sort of tragedy is gross. Like someone noted, had this been made into a documentary, I probably would have wanted to see it. I'd be interested in hearing those affected speak about it. A simple re-creation, to me, not only lacks credibility, but also insults the target audience's intellect; personally, I don't see an on-screen reminder of these events as being entertainment. I also think that in order to be taken seriously, much of, if not most, of the movie's profits should be donated to a relevant women's organization. And by the way, the last quote in the article, "The only thing I try to say in the film is that the sharing of power between men and women creates a fear and a rage amongst men in general (etc)" made my stomach turn a little. Does Villeneuve even realize what he's saying?
Michael B.
February 03, 2009 - 7:32 AM
 I'll go and see the movie before I rush to judgement. But as a male Engineer who attended McGill during the time of the shootings, I sure I will be affected soemhow. I'l wait and see.
February 02, 2009 - 12:22 PM
 We should never forget what happen on that horrific & the familes that still suffer anytime the subject of Poly. comes up. I have not made any decision on to see the re-creation on film or not....we should not forget that films on horific events have been made before(ex Manson Murders& War Movies)....we have the right to give judgement on what is said & seen in our society....so i beleive on freedom of expressions....please do not deny for what we fight for, each day,so i beleive to what everyone is saying because that is there right. thanks
February 02, 2009 - 9:51 AM
 I didn`t think I would go see this movie before reading this article. Now I am certain. Simply recreating the events that we are all too familiar with is no different than making a horror film.
February 02, 2009 - 9:22 AM
 I think this movie should not have been made. A documentary perhaps might have been more appropriate but a commercial venture? Aren't we supposed to go to the cinema to be entertained? I hope everyone boycotts this movie!
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