On the annual commemoration of the “Montreal Massacre,” the Quebec broadcaster Marie-France Bazzo remarked how strange it was that, after all these years, nobody had made a work of art about what happened that day at the École Polytechnique.
I wonder, in the two decades since Dec. 6, 1989, how many novelists, playwrights, film directors have tried, and found themselves stumped at the first question: what is this story about?
To those who succeeded in imposing the official narrative, Marc Lépine embodies the murderous misogynist rage that is inherent in all men, and which all must acknowledge.
For a smaller number of us, the story has quite the opposite meaning: M Lépine was born Gamil Gharbi, the son of an Algerian Muslim wife-beater. And, as I always say, no, I’m not suggesting he’s typical of Muslim men or North African men: my point is that he’s not typical of anything, least of all, his pure laine moniker notwithstanding, what we might call (if you’ll forgive the expression) Canadian manhood. As I wrote in this space three years ago:
“The defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lépine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate—an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history. The ‘men’ stood outside in the corridor and, even as they heard the first shots, they did nothing. And, when it was over and Gharbi walked out of the room and past them, they still did nothing. Whatever its other defects, Canadian manhood does not suffer from an excess of testosterone.”
That’s what my film would be about. But don’t worry, the grant from Cinedole Canada seems to have got lost in the mail.
I would imagine that, when the director Denis Villeneuve and the talented vedette Karine Vanasse set out to make Polytechnique, they were intending to film the official narrative. But, in this case, art cannot imitate life. There is no hero in the official version—other than, as is invariably the case in Trudeaupia, the Canadian state riding in like a belated cavalry to hold annual memorials with flags lowered to half-staff and to demand that every octogenarian farmer register his rusting shotgun. Alas, on celluloid, that doesn’t come over quite as heroic.
So M Villeneuve and his collaborators were obliged to make artistic choices. For starters, Polytechnique is not a film “about” Marc Lépine. Aside from the early voice-over narration of his ugly, banal manifesto, we hear or see very little from his perspective. He is not (if you’ll again forgive the expression) the leading man, and, indeed, barely functions as a supporting role in his own movie: there is no attempt to explore his pathologies or their roots.
M Villeneuve then opts to shoot the movie in black and white, and to be very sparing in his dialogue. I saw the film with a capacity crowd at the Maison du Cinéma in Sherbrooke (lousy sound, by the way), and the dialogue-free stretches are so frequent that, by the time someone eventually delivered a line, I’d all but forgotten the movie was in French. In reality, it’s speaking in a kind of interior language. It’s a black-and-white film of a world of grey—the literal grey of dirty urban snow falling on drab apartment houses and the godawful bunkers of Quebec government architecture, but also a kind of moral grey. The physical landscape of the École Polytechnique is unsparingly rendered: claustrophobic windowless rooms of painted brick blocks that capture the particular grimness of a city full of modern buildings that all look out of date. We hear a couple of period pop hits, but the rest of the score is mournfully anemic violin generalities. It’s an airless world, and M Villeneuve seems determined to keep it that way, as if to let in too many superficial indicators of life—colour, music, banter—would draw attention to how un-animated his characters are. Consciously or not, the director has selected a visual style that’s most sympathetic to what some of us regard as the defining feature of this atrocity: the on-the-scene passivity.
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