Starring Karine Vanasse and Maxim Gaudette. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, March 20, at the Cinemark Tinseltown
The 14 women whom Marc Lepine murdered and the 10 he wounded on December 6, 1989, were almost all engineering students at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, hard-working pioneers who wanted to make their way in what had hitherto been an almost exclusively male preserve. Screaming how much he hated “feminists”, Lepine separated the men from the women and gunned down the latter.
No wonder this is the massacre that everyone remembers.
In a famous essay she published shortly after the fact, Nicole Brossard, Quebec’s best-known literary feminist, complained about all the attention being paid to the killer, referring to him only as “M. L.”
In Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant, partially fictionalized account of this terrible event, the director and screenwriter Jacques Davidts don’t give the gunman even that much identity. Instead, they focus on three students (two female, one male) and the impact this now anonymous misogynist would have on their lives.
Valérie (Karine Vanasse, who is also one of the film’s producers) is receiving an important fellowship in aeronautical engineering from a condescending male prof (who epitomizes what French novelist Claire Etcherelli famously described as sexisme ordinaire) even as Lepine (Maxim Gaudette) is sticking a banana clip into his semiautomatic hunting rifle. She’s on her way to class with best friend Stéphanie (Evelyne Brochu) and the less-than-brilliant Jean-Franí§ois (Sébastien Huberdeau), a good-natured type who is condemned by fate to ask himself an ever-more-agonizing series of what-if questions.
Brilliantly shot in black and white (a process that simultaneously desensationalizes the shootings and makes Montreal winters seem as dreary as they actually are) and utilizing a raft of tricks (voice-over, long shots, talking backs of heads) that makes the process of English overdubbing 100-percent painless, Villeneuve handles this still-volatile material with sensitivity and restraint (none of the on-screen victims were modelled on real casualties).
Best of all, the film concludes by declaring that living well and succeeding against all the odds is the only way to rise above unspeakable horror. Any other strategy, it argues, hands undeserved victory to the Lepines of this world.