Polytechnique [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (6th December 2020).
The Film

"Polytechnique" (2009)

On December 6th, 1989 in Montreal, Canada, a lone young man walked into mechanical engineering school of École Polytechnique. He brought a rifle and knife and killed fourteen people and injured thirteen others before taking his own life. It was the deadliest school shooting in the history of Canada. All fourteen victims he killed were female. According to his suicide note and a memo he kept, his targets were women. A young man angered by the rise in feminism, he showed no remorse or sympathy towards his actions or victims. Gun control laws in Canada were heavily modified in the years following the tragedy, and in 1991, December 6th was commemorated as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. In 2009, a film was made based on the incident, simply titled "Polytechnique".

Valerie (played by Karine Vanasse) is an engineering student at Polytechnique, ready to take a step into aeronautics engineering. Her internship interview does not go well and puts a damper on her day. Her classmate Jean-François (played by Sébastien Huberdeau) borrows her notes for class, and therefore ends up being a few minutes later, but thankfully doesn't get into trouble with the professor. But unbeknownst to them, a gunman (played by Maxim Gaudette) is armed and ready to incite a mass shooting all alone, with the intention of killing the women at the school.

"Polytechnique" plays with a non-narrative structure through multiple perspectives on the incident. The killer's actions are seen from his preparation at home writing his suicide note, his lurking around the school from outside in his car to indoors. His actions are calculating in what he wants to do and where to do it, but nervousness sometimes overtakes him like when he is loading the gun or waiting around. Though many sequences are seen from the killer's viewpoint, he is not given sympathy or light. The opening moment of the film is female students being shot in the photocopying room of the school without any warning. Seeing who the gunman is in later scenes, there is no way that the audience can connect with the character, not matter what his purpose is. With his notes and narration talking about the rise of feminism and women's rights, leading to more women opting for work and school rather than marriage and homelife as well as contraception becoming more widely available at the time, in his mind women were taking the place of men in society and therefore tipping the balance in his ideals. How he came to think this way is not mentioned, neither is his life at home, relationships with female family, or other aspects of his personal life. In lesser hands the character may be a one dimensional killer, but the film gives him just enough depth to keep things interesting and thought provoking. In contrast, the character of Valerie from the start is seen as one with bright hopes for the future, hoping get herself an internship for aeronautics. But as the interviewer says, they are looking for long term candidates and not someone that would later give it up for a family life. Basically, looking for a male to fill the role. Females may be getting more equal treatment in comparison to the past, but she realizes there is still a ways to go for full equality. She and the other women in the classroom that get gunned down do not see themselves as "feminists" but students looking to get an equal education. Her giving notes to Jean-François who is struggling a little with class shows that it is not about gender of who is better in class than others. Jean-François's character is set up like the male hero, as he is there in the classroom when the killer makes his first move. He's also the only one to return to try and help the victims and does so in a dangerous situation. But he is the victim of the aftermath. One that struggles with the pain of living through and surviving the massacre, feeling helpless and disconnected.

Spoilers!
The film cuts between the characters and how they experienced the tragedy as well as the lives of Valerie and Jean-François respectively after the events in their separate lives. The haunted lives of survivors and the witnesses are touched upon in "Polytechnique" in both optimistic and pessimistic ways. Valerie eventually lands a job in aeronautics engineering and is in a loving relationship. In addition she is pregnant with her first child. The letter she writes in the coda is one that is fearful yet also strong and hopeful for the future, talking about the frightening ordeal she went though and for all women that it could have happened to alongside being strong enough to continue with life and becoming a mother. On the other hand, Jean-François is in a depressed state with a distant relationship with his mother, becoming more of a reclusive following the incident. He ends up killing himself unable to live with the guilt of surviving and not being able to help.
End Spoilers

Actress Karine Vanasse was interested in producing a film about the Polytechnique massacre for some years but was quite a difficult project to get off the ground due to the subject matter. She asked filmmaker Denis Villeneuve if he would be interested in writing and directing in which he replied with a "yes" very quickly. Though a sensitive matter, they both agreed that there wasn't a question of "too soon" but discussion should be raised rather than just having it as a terrible footnote in modern Canadian history. Villeneuve directed "August 32nd on Earth" in 1998 and "Maelström" in 2000. Though both productions were well regarded, he was not entirely fulfilled with his work and decided to take time off from filmmaking, looking to return with an important work. For the production, the École Polytechnique gave permission to use the school as a filming location but it was decided to be shot at a few differing schools around Montreal in respect for the fallen. Shot in black and white by cinematographer Pierre Gill, it gave a sense of distance from the reality the story was set in with a feeling of timelessness even if dates are mentioned at the start of the film. Interestingly the production was produced with two versions in mind - a French language version and an English language version, with all the actors speaking both languages for different takes. Besides the takes, there is no other difference between the French and English versions, with the runtimes being exactly the same and shot lengths also being identical. The French language version was made as the primary version as the incident took place in Montreal and the English version made for the English speaking markets.

In Canada there have been 10 incidents since the Polytechnique massacre, with casualties being in the single digits or at zero. It's hard not to think about the country's southern neighbor when discussing school shootings, becoming more and more common in the United States in the recent years, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook to Parkland, they are only a few out of many. 55 incidents just in the year 2019 alone, and eight in 2020 despite the fact that COVID-19 shut down schools across the country for most of the year. While some will argue about things being "too soon" to discuss or debate, the argument also comes that when things are too late, things will be worse than before. The massacre in Canada and the "Polytechnique" film has kept the story as part of public consciousness and a moral tale of the dangers of distorted ideology and the consequences of violent actions. In addition, the film can be seen as a true work of art with its narrative structure, cinematography, and its excellent performances from the leads.

The film opened in Canadian cinemas on February 6th, 2009 and grossed a respectable $1.6 million theatrically. It was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2009 and at other festivals throughout the year and in 2010. The film cleaned up at the 2010 Genie Awards, winning 9 out of 11 nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. At the Jutra Awards it won 6 out of the 7 nominations. Though it was nominated for many awards around Canada, the film didn't seem to find an audience outside its own country. Villeneuve's following film "Incendies" (2010) grabbed its much deserved international critical attention, and his career has only increased in stature and scale with recent works such as "Arrival" (2016), "Blade Runner 2049" (2017) and the highly anticipated upcoming "Dune". "Polytechnique" can be a difficult watch considering the reality the story is based around, but is an intense and horrific yet hopeful film that all should see.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray

Video

The BFI presents both versions of the film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. Shot on Super 35, the black and white image looks absolutely wonderful throughout, with an excellent greyscale. Detail is sharp with no issues of digital compression or artifacts. The two versions of the film are fairly short in length and there is plenty of room on the BD-50 disc for both to have a healthy looking transfer.

Both versions have an identical runtime of 77:00.

Audio

French Version:
French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French LPCM 2.0 stereo
English Version:
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English LPCM 2.0 stereo

Both lossless 5.1 and uncompressed 2.0 stereo tracks are available with both versions of the film. Dialogue is centered and always clear, being well balanced with the music and effects. The music featured in the film ranging from Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sisters of Mercy for period appropriate tracks playing on the radio alongside are more on the muted side being basically background. A more modern song by Cinematic Orchestra plays in one sequence but this is played more as a background score, though it does not at all take away from the period setting. Effects of the gunshots are quite loud in comparison for the effect of shock. The 5.1 and stereo separation is used effectively for the music and effects, giving a full encapsulating experience. There are no dropouts or other problematic issues with the audio tracks.

There are optional English subtitles for the French version and optional English HoH subtitles for the English version, both in a white font. The French version has opening and closing text in French which the opening is subtitled in English but strangely the final credit for the tribute to the victims is not subtitled. For the English version it has all the text in English. As usual with HoH subtitles, they also caption the songs that play as well as other sound effects.

Extras

"Polytechnique: Ce qu'il reste du 6 décembre" documentary (51:48)
This 2019 documentary, translated in English as "Polytechnique: What Remains of December 6", directed by Judith Plamondon for television for the 30th anniversary of the tragedy features a retrospective account by the people that were there on the tragic day. Featuring interviews by survivors, policemen, journalists and more connected to the incident, heartfelt and traumatic moments are recounted years later alongside vintage news footage and photographs. In addition, the feminist movements surrounding the incident and the issues that the country later faced and still faces are discussed. The newly conducted interviews are in 1.78:1, the vintage footage is in 1.33:1, and clips from the film are in 2.35:1. The documentary is almost entirely in French, except for one short vintage interview clips being in English.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1/1.33:1/2.35:1, in French & English Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles for the French portions

Trailer (1:25)
The original English trailer is presented here, only with music and English text.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 2.35:1, LPCM 1.0 with no subtitles

Booklet
A 28 page booklet is included. First is an introductory statement by director Denis Villeneuve. Next is the essay "A Fall of Snow" by critic Jessica Kiang which discusses the film, how it compares to Villeneuve's other works and about school mass shootings in North America. "Remembering Polytechnique" by Karine Vanasse follows, which the actress recalls the start of the project and looking back a decade on how impactful the experience was. This is followed by a biography of Vanasse. "The Elemental Denis Villeneuve" by writer Justine Smith looks at Villeneuve's varied and interesting works as a director. There are full film credits, credits for the documentary (which mistakenly states it is from 2009 rather than 2019) plus a statement from the director Judith Plamondon, transfer information, acknowledgements, and stills.

A clip of the English version of the film, courtesy of the BFI has been embedded below.


Though it is not on the disc itself, this video essay by Will Webb on the BFI YouTube channel is an excellent watch.



The film was previously released on Blu-ray in Canada by Alliance Atlantis, Germany by Capelight Pictures, and Japan by Happinet. The Canadian Blu-ray had a retrospective TV documentary from 1999 and a news excerpt from 1989 with both versions of the film. The German release only had the French lanaguage version of the film and was a bonus with the Villeneuve directed mind bending "Enemy" from 2013. In Jaoan, the film received a belated theatrical release in 2017, and the 2017 Blu-ray has both French and English versions with no extras. The BFI might seem "light" by only including a documentary and trailer, but the content of the documentary as well as the informative booklet are heavy indeed.

Overall

"Polytechnique" is disturbing and scary as a feature that pays tribute to the murdered victims and to the survivors of the deadly massacre from thirty years ago, yet an artistic and optimistic piece of work that deserves discussion both socially and cinematically. The BFI Blu-ray has an excellent transfer of both versions and an excellent new documentary. Highly recommended.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: B Overall: A-

 


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