Denis Villeneuve makes powerful art out of real-world tragedy.
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick is a 2009 drama about a real-life mass shooting in Canada. (I know, next week’s pick will be lighter. Honest.)
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is one of 2016’s best films and is nominated for several Academy Awards, but it’s only the latest triumph in a career that’s already seen numerous high points. He’s currently finishing up Blade Runner 2049, he’s attached to a new adaptation of Dune, and his last four films – Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners, and Incendies – all found degrees of critical and commercial acclaim. It’s a terrifically varied filmography, but while these are the titles typically mentioned when discussing his work there’s more brilliance to discover even earlier in his career. One of my favorites of his is 2000’s Maelstrom, a wonderfully weird and creative film exploring abortion, suicide, and a talking fish, but one of his best – and sadly most relevant – is 2009’s Polytechnique.
The film dramatizes an incident from twenty years prior that saw a hateful and disturbed man enter a Montreal university and proceed to murder fourteen young women and injure several others before taking his own life. His motivation, as evidenced by the words he spoke and the note in his pocket, was an anger towards feminists for supposedly ruining his life through what he believed was their opportunistic profiting on the backs of men. It’s an infuriating and tragic true story, and the film offers a haunting and powerful look at what happened then and what happened next for two of the survivors.
Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Villeneuve and writer Jacques Davidts move viewers through the time leading up to the shooting with shifting exposure to a handful of characters. There are four focused on here including two of the soon-to-be targeted women, a male classmate, and the killer.
Opening text tells us the characters are fictional out of respect for the actual victims and families, but wisely and appropriately, the film’s killer is never named. We watch as the shooter (Maxim Gaudette) prepares for the assault, writes his suicide note, and isolates himself from the world, but he’s never given an identity. Those worth remembering are given names and include best friends Valérie (Karine Vanasse) and Stéphanie (Evelyne Brochu, Orphan Black’s Delphine) and their male friend Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau).
As happened in the real incident, the killer enters an engineering classroom, separates the nine women from the dozens of men, and tells the latter group to leave. They comply, just as they did in real life, and it’s an anger-inducing moment of disbelief. It’s an unbelievable situation, one where you can’t help but think you would have done different – thirty to forty guys, they could have rushed the shooter, they could have tackled him, how could not even one of them know they were signing a death sentence for their female classmates? Logic and hindsight are just that though, and while it doesn’t lessen the sting none of us know how we’d react in a similar situation.
The event led to massive debate in Canada with some people incredulous that the men did nothing while others, astonishingly, blamed feminism for having neutered men to the degree that they didn’t fight back.
We follow Jean-François out of the room where he races to notify security before returning to find the women have all been gunned down, and as the shooter roams the halls ignoring males and targeting females Jean-François attempts to help the wounded. He’s desperate to help, but we can see in his face that guilt is already growing. That gnawing feeling that he could have done more – that he shouldn’t have left the room – leads him to commit suicide a few months later. It’s a heartbreaking reminder of the repercussions of tragedy, and sadly, as with the rest of this fictionalized retelling, his death has a basis in reality as some of the real survivors killed themselves in the years following.
Benoît Charest’s score halts as the shooting begins, and instead the only sounds are chatter that turns to screams and the powerful, nerve-wracking blasts of gunfire. Villeneuve and cinematographer Pierre Gill shot the film in black & white, and while it adds a more artistic and at times beautiful lens to the developing tragedy the more important goal was to avoid the crimson shock of blood. Their intent is especially clear late in the film when we jump back to see exactly what happened in the classroom. Lifeless bodies, huddled close together, appear just out of focus – but we know what we’re seeing.
There is light among the darkness though.
Valérie’s working towards a career in the male-dominated field of aeronautical engineering, and we see her dream challenged twice by men. A prospective employer shoots her down with sexist views about women not being a good fit as their desire for family normally points them towards easier jobs. And then the killer shoots her down with his Ruger Mini-14. She survives both, and as the film jumps forward we see a changed Valérie now happy, strong, and working in her field of choice. She’s still haunted by her past, but despite the warnings and explanations she persisted and achieved her dream.
Villeneuve’s film is far from an overt political statement – there are no details on the ease with which the killer acquired the gun and no comment on the subsequent changes made to police response and firearm restrictions that may have played a role in severely limiting the carnage from two later mass shootings on Montreal campuses. Instead the film simply captures the simple, painful reality of those trapped in a nightmare born of hate and violence and makes it clear that we must continue moving forward. Ideally we’ll forget the names of those responsible for suffering and instead celebrate those who fell, those who rose, and the resilience that only grows stronger through tragedy.
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
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