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.
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