The Poetry of Grief

Montreal filmmaker Denis Villeneuve brings the Polytechnique massacre to the screen

Twenty years ago this December, as they finished up their last week of classes before the Christmas break, fourteen young women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique were killed by twenty-five-year-old Marc Lépine, who entered the school with a semi-automatic machine gun sheathed in a garbage bag, and went on a nineteen-minute shooting spree before turning his weapon on himself.

Our shared memories of December 6, 1989, are mostly related to the crime scene as it was shown on the evening news: the ambulances and police vehicles parked on the snowy bank beside the school, sirens flashing; the sobbing parents as they arrived on the scene; and the terrified students as they exited the building, shivering in their T-shirts. But our knowledge of what happened that day has always been limited, as though the locked doors of the institution, sealed with crime scene tape, served not only to hide the bodies from view, but to shield us from the traumatic realities of Lépine’s murderous rage.

While the dearth of first-hand stories about the events at the Polytechnique is notable, even more remarkable is that until this year no feature film had been made about them. “We in Canada think of ourselves as very progressive, especially when it comes to questions of power relations between women and men,” says Denis Villeneuve, whose seventy-seven-minute black and white Polytechnique is the first moment-by-moment recounting of that day. “We like to negate our problems, and we have a lot of trouble expressing our feelings about what happened that day, even so many years later. But rage and violence have their own language, and it needs to be spoken. If you ask me, Polytechnique is a little too late, even; this film should probably have been made a long time ago. For me, [making Polytechnique] was hugely important. It renewed my conviction that cinema has the potential to provide consolation to people in the very depths of their pain.”

Villeneuve’s rediscovered zeal for filmmaking, which has resulted in Polytechnique and another major film this year, comes at the end of a long hiatus. In 1998, when he was thirty, his first feature, Un 32 août sur terre, played at Cannes, and achieved critical and (modest) box-office success. His sophomore effort, Maelström, went on to win the prestigious fipresci prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Soon afterward, he disappeared.

Well, not entirely. During those years, Villeneuve could be spotted close to home in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, a young Cannes lion as stay-at-home-dad, with the aquiline, slightly stubbled, soft-lipped handsomeness particular to some French Canadian movie heartthrobs. Though once hailed as Quebec’s hottest young director, the forty-one-year-old has been absent for most of the province’s recent film renaissance, as a new generation of Québécois filmmakers showcased their talents. Ricardo Trogi’s wry, earnest Québec-Montréal and Horloge biologique made waves, as did Jean-Marc Vallée’s explosive C.R.A.Z.Y., Lyne Charlebois’s frenzied Borderline, Louis Bélanger’s earthy Gaz Bar Blues, and Kim Nguyen’s ominous Le Marais and surreal Truffe. Villeneuve’s close friend Philippe Falardeau made Congorama and last year’s C’est pas moi, je le jure!—two movies admired for many of the qualities seen in Villeneuve’s early work.

“After Maelström, I stopped for several years, because I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Villeneuve during the first of several meetings, at a café around the corner from his children’s school. “I had young kids, and that was part of it. I decided to be present for them in a significant way during those years. But it wasn’t just about my private life. To put it bluntly, I thought my writing needed work, and I needed to rediscover my relationship to cinema. I didn’t want to go into a spin where I would just make Maelström 2, Maelström 3, and so on… so I stopped. I went back to school, so to speak, to learn and to reflect, and it was the best decision I ever made. I didn’t care about being [the next big thing in Quebec cinema]. I needed to find subjects that would speak to me. And if I didn’t find them, I didn’t care if I never made another movie.”

His creative passion was reignited by the prospect of adapting Wajdi Mouawad’s play Incendies (Scorched) for the screen. Incendies, which has had successful runs at Montreal’s Théâtre de Quat’Sous and Centaur Theatre Company, as well as in Toronto and abroad, is a magical realist Oedipal tragedy about torture, war, and man’s inhumanity to woman that takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country (the playwright was born in Lebanon). Mouawad’s ambitious mise en scène and focus on trans-generational trauma appealed to Villeneuve, for whom discovering the play was an instant coup de foudre (bolt of lightning, or love at first sight). Villeneuve began pre-production on Incendies just before Christmas, while he was still finishing Polytechnique. “Wajdi’s subject is the propagation of rage from one generation to the next, and the way we can be gripped by a spectral fear that isn’t even ours,” he says. “I’m committed to the idea that we aren’t free from our passions, and that in order to attain a certain freedom in our own lives we have to confront our intense feelings of violence.”

Villeneuve shot Polytechnique in the winter of 2008, and last spring his short film Next Floor won the Grand Prix Canal + for best short film at Cannes. Next Floor was produced by Montreal arts impresario Phoebe Greenberg, and shot over a few days in a heritage building in Old Montreal that Greenberg had purchased for renovation as a centre for the arts. She decided that before she gutted her building Villeneuve should have carte blanche to shoot a film there, and to wreak as much havoc as he wanted. With his co-scriptwriter, Jacques Davidts, who wrote Polytechnique, the director conceived a story reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, about a grotesque meal where the guests gather to devour the victuals of unidentified beasts. Between courses, everyone falls through the floor in a riot of plaster, planks, and dust, landing on the floor below, where more glistening carcasses await their dining pleasure.

“When I was a young writer, before I made any films, I existed in a universe much more like Next Floor than 32 août or Maelström,” says Villeneuve. “I love naturalist cinema, but that’s not where I started. I’m much more drawn to the theatrical, and to the relationship the surreal can have with the imagination. Polytechnique is a very realistic movie; the subject demands it. Next Floor was a chance to execute my impulses toward the abstract, and it felt completely freeing. I made it for my kids, because I know they won’t be able to see either of my next two features until they are at least eighteen.”

His early films are about sex and the proximity of death, not necessarily in that order. Both centre on calamitous events in the lives of women—specifically, car accidents that cause his protagonists to drastically change the course of their lives. In 32 août, an elegant perfume model, Simone Prévost (Pascale Bussières), walks away from a vehicular mishap and decides to quit her career and have a baby with her best friend—who agrees, on the condition that they conceive the child in the middle of the Utah desert. They get there, finally—in a taxi. In Maelström, a stylish young boutique owner, Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), is reeling from an abortion. She gets drunk and hits a Norwegian fisherman with her BMW, killing him. When the man’s son comes to Montreal from Norway to mourn him and track down his murderer, they fall in love.

Villeneuve garnishes his narratives with touches of the surreal: August 32, the date and title of Un 32 août sur terre, doesn’t exist in the calendar year. The vivacious irrationality of Simone’s jaunty trip through Utah’s crusty desert doesn’t exactly telegraph the seriousness of his topic; her decisions are tossed off with an insouciance incongruous with the gravity of her near-death experience. And maybe that’s the point. Villeneuve treats his landscapes with as much compassion as he does his characters, or more. The close-ups of human faces are interspersed with wide shots that show the flatness of the desert, with humans appearing as tiny dots on the horizon. At other moments, his people are giants against a burnt, skewed vanishing point that fades into the distance.

With the exception of Incendies, Villeneuve’s latest projects result from other people’s visions of his potential. The actress Karine Vanasse caused a gigantic Quebec-style media frenzy in 2006 when she announced her intention to make a film about the Polytechnique massacre. After a day of sparring with skeptical journalists, when she met with Villeneuve the next morning to offer him the film he was probably the only director in Montreal who had no clue what the meeting was about. He had been sick the previous day and had missed all the headlines.

“Denis was the only director we asked,” says the clear-eyed, twenty-five-year-old Vanasse, who defended her pet project during yet another long day of press interviews when Polytechnique was released in Quebec in February. “For a project like this, you can’t put aside the violence and the horror, but Denis has a sense of poetry—and we wanted a poem about these events, rather than a reportage. In Quebec, when you talk about December 6 it’s so easy to slip into a debate of ideas, because that’s how people are used to processing this tragedy. But Denis navigated it beautifully, with just the right dose of fact and emotion, so that it doesn’t become sentimental or sensational. The film is really focused on what happened, and nothing more than that.”

In a sense, Polytechnique fits perfectly within the continuum of Villeneuve’s movies: his protagonist, a young engineering student named Valérie (played by Vanasse), is a no-nonsense career girl who recalls Maelström’s Bibiane, or Simone from 32 août. Except that Valérie is in no way the cause of her own calamity, and of course she is, to a large extent, real. Valérie and her male counterpart, a classmate named Jean-François, are fictional characters created from an amalgam of oral testimony gathered from survivors of December 6, research that Villeneuve and Davidts gathered over a year of personal interviews. Though the main characters are fictionalized, the chilling voice-over that echoes across quiet scenes of an everyday Montreal school day is starkly real: it is the voice of the Killer (played by Maxim Gaudette), speaking the exact words Marc Lépine wrote in the letter later found on his body, in which he stated his desire to commit suicide, taking as many of the “feminists who ruined his life” as possible into death along with him.

Polytechnique is both a recreation of the events as they unfolded that afternoon, and a poetic meditation on the life- and death-giving properties of violence and fear as experienced in their purest forms. Villeneuve’s rendering is restrained to the point that it’s practically matter-of-fact, and every scene is saturated with the dreadful sense that these things really happened.

Gone are the capricious narrative hooks and bright palettes of 32 août and Maelström; Polytechnique’s grey scale offers a poetic distance, according to the director, that permitted him to show things that would otherwise be unbearable. Gone, for the most part, are the spry and drastic camera angles, as Villeneuve grapples with the moral problem of where to put his camera when shooting the figure of a man who is holding a semi-automatic rifle, so as not to give him too much power in the frame, but not to trivialize him either.

The film begins with Valérie and her roommate, Stéphanie, at home in their apartment, preparing for an arduous but normal day of school. Valérie has an interview for a fellowship in mechanical engineering; she dreams of building airplanes. Stéphanie, who is more skilled at putting outfits together, helps her friend dress up as the serious, capable woman she wishes to someday become. Together they bundle up for a cold Montreal day and emerge from the metro and into the chaotic buzz of the Polytechnique. By the end of the day, one of them will be dead, and one will be changed forever. Meanwhile, in another part of town, a blank-eyed boy starts to compose his letter.

“I realize that the very idea of making a movie about these events is problematic, but to me it also felt necessary,” says Villeneuve. “I also realize it could come off as pretentious—to make a ‘poetic’ film about something that really happened. But I approached the subject with the utmost humility. These are events that happened to us, to people of my generation in my city, and somehow in the act of retelling the story there was a lot of suffering inherent in the process, but there was a healing, too. The subject of the Polytechnique massacre, now, here, is a little bit taboo. There’s a sense that ‘it’s over’ and no one wants to talk about it or touch it. The subject of power relations between men and women in Quebec is like a raw nerve… but I do think there’s a place where cinema can help us talk about these things that haunt us. I think we have to be able to go back into the wound if we are ever to be done with it.”

In Polytechnique, there are two main protagonists, and neither one is the Killer. Besides Vanasse’s Valérie, there is also the figure of her classmate Jean-François, one of the young men in the room who are dismissed by the Killer, who tells the women to stay. Looking back into the room as he leaves, Jean-François is convulsed with panic and guilt. He runs back and forth through the school, first looking for help, and then trying desperately to save his female colleagues as they lie collapsed from wounds inflicted by the gunman. Jean-François, for whom the aftershock of that day doesn’t lead to healing and reconciliation, is Villeneuve’s stand-in for all men, the conduit through which he, and we, are called upon to bear witness.

Some critics have already reacted violently to the fact that Polytechnique does not offer any kind of cohesive explanation or summary of the causes and effects of Lépine’s actions. But for Villeneuve, the very question as to why one should make a film that reopens the old wounds is in itself an answer. In a scene from the middle part of Polytechnique, when the school day is under way and classes are about to begin, Jean-François notices a print of Picasso’s Guernica, clipped to a fence, supposedly part of a poster fair at the school that day. As he stops briefly in front of the image, Villeneuve’s camera pauses with him. “That visual reference of Guernica was important to me, because it corresponds with what my film is trying to do,” says Villeneuve. “I want Polytechnique to bear the responsibility of witnessing. Guernica is Picasso’s refusal of Fascism, but he is also memorializing a massacre in a [Basque village]. And of course, looking at the painting isn’t going to console me. Picasso’s gesture is futile, but also necessary, because it allows me to explore the darkness and attempt the impossibility of consolation.”

Melora Koepke
Maryse Larivière