Montreal massacre film brings up 'too many memories'

Video images from the movie Polytechnique are evoking strong emotions in Quebec, where it opens next week, the 20th anniversary of the shootings.

Don Carmody Productions

Video images from the movie Polytechnique are evoking strong emotions in Quebec, where it opens next week, the 20th anniversary of the shootings.

Graeme Hamilton, National Post · Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009

MONTREAL -- The movie trailer playing in Quebec theatres is gripping, showing a young man with a rifle stalking the halls of a school before herding a bunch of terrified female students into the corner of a classroom. What is lacking is suspense, because, sadly, everyone in the province knows how the story ends.

Next week, in this 20th anniversary year of the shootings at Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique, a feature film based on the Dec. 6, 1989, massacre, opens in theatres across Quebec. Polytechnique is the work of award-winning director Denis Villeneuve and stars the respected actress Karine Vanasse, but their solid reputations have not been enough to keep the film from stirring a major controversy. The emotional wounds left by Marc Lépine’s anti-feminist rampage, which left 14 women dead, are so deep that some are saying even 20 years is not long enough to wait before bringing the story to the screen.

Yesterday, Montreal’s La Presse asked on its front page the question, “Polytechnique … To see it or not?” Inside, two of the paper’s columnists offered opposing views. Yves Boisvert said the front-page photo in The Gazette the morning after the shootings, showing a victim slumped in a chair while a police officer took down a Merry Christmas banner, remains burned in his memory. “I think of it and I shiver. I think of it and I’m nauseous. And you ask me if I want to go see the film?”

He doubts that anything in the film will give him a better understanding of what drove Lépine to his act of madness.

Nathalie Petrowski, for her part, said she has defended the film’s right to exist since the project was first announced four years ago, and she left a press screening Monday shaken but all the more convinced that the story needs to be told.

“This film should be seen because it is dedicated to the loving memory of 14 women who died in their prime and who deserve that we mourn them, that we honour them and that we suffer with them for a little more than an hour in the cinema.”

The film’s producers knew Polytechnique would cause distress in Quebec and in the rest of Canada, where an English version is slated to be released later this year. “It is not at all surprising to me that something about the Montreal massacre is inevitably going to evoke strong feelings in the audience,” said Mark Slone, senior vice-president of Alliance Films, the distributor.

In an interview last year with the National Post’s Chris Knight, Mr. Villeneuve said he owed no apologies for taking on the subject. “A lot of cinema today is done to please the people,” said the director, whose last feature film was 2000’s Maelstrom. He added that cinema also has a duty to reflect reality.

“I’ve met students who’ve been through the events and I was really inspired by their stories.... We are ready to see a movie that embraces the point of view of the victims.”

Polytechnique is not the first movie to tackle a real-life tragedy still fresh in the collective memory. The American director Gus Van Sant won praise for his 2003 film Elephant, based on the Columbine school shootings, but one prominent critic called it exploitative. In Canada, the 1996 TV movie Giant Mine, based on the 1992 labour dispute that led to a fatal bombing, opened wounds in Yellowknife. The city mobilized counsellors and advertised a crisis line in advance of the movie’s broadcast.

In the run-up to Polytechnique’s Quebec release on Feb. 6, the producers have held private screenings for those directly affected by the massacre, including Lépine’s mother and family members of the victims.

Sylvie Haviernick, whose sister Maud was one of the engineering students murdered by Lépine, said families have not opposed the making of the film but they are divided about actually seeing it. She decided it was important to go.

“I think that a film, a book, a painting, a photograph or a monument, they are all memorials in the end, they help people to remember,” she said in an interview yesterday. “True, a film is more powerful because it can be seen by a lot more people than other media.”

Ms. Haviernick said the film was hard to watch but not at all sensationalist. “I am surprised to see that everywhere in the country there is so much interest in the release of the film. It proves that this remains something that is still not resolved, and not only just for Quebecers but for all Canadians.”

The university has decided not to comment on the film’s release, but in 2005 when the project was announced a spokeswoman called it insensitive to the hundreds of employees who remain marked by the events of 1989.

“We experience Dec. 6 every year, and it is a very fragile subject within our walls,” she said.

Commenting on a La Presse blog, one current Polytechnique student said just seeing the film’s trailer has been painful. “Imagine watching a film about a slaughter that took place in your daily workplace,” the student wrote.

“I won’t go see the film,” wrote another commenter, who had classes in another part of the Université de Montréal the night of the massacre. “Too many memories.”

National Post

ghamilton@nationalpost.com

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