The first big film about . . . Dec. 6, 1989

‘Polytechnique,’ shot in both French and English, opens across the country on Feb. 6

The first big film about . . . Dec. 6, 1989

It remains Quebec’s definitive tragedy, a day marked both by unspeakable carnage and the all-consuming hate of the man who begat it. Quebec society turned inward on itself in an attempt to explain it away: it was the fault of its gun laws, its passivism, its misogyny. Men were to blame, because they were inherently violent; feminists were faulted for stigmatizing and emasculating a generation of men. Misery became a vacuum filled by the musings of academics, pressure groups, pundits and journalists. Scattershot theories abound: a few years ago, a Globe and Mail columnist blamed Bill 101.

We know, or pretend to know, why it is that on Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lépine entered the Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique and murdered 14 women before taking his own life. Few, though, know exactly how he did it. It is this question, thorny as it is, that filmmaker Denis Villeneuve attempts to answer in Polytechnique, the first major film to deal with what happened on that snowy, wretched day nearly 20 years ago. Filmed simultaneously in English and French, it will open across the country on Feb. 6.

The characters of Polytechnique are composites based on the women and men who died or survived on Dec. 6. It stars Karine Vanasse as Valérie, an aspiring engineer who, like her classmates, is locked in the sleepless melodrama of winter exams. Engineering is largely the domain of men, and there is a flash of institutionalized prejudice–she earns an internship only after saying she doesn’t plan on getting pregnant. Still, like her classmate Jean-François, Valérie is otherwise too distracted by her studies to pay much attention to gender politics.

It takes the demented world view of an assassin, who spits out the word “feminist” from behind his automatic weapon like it’s a curse, for her to realize what is happening. When one of the shooter’s victims says, “we aren’t feminists,” it sounds as much like the truth as a defence mechanism. “You simply don’t ask yourself if you’re a feminist anymore,” says Vanasse. “Until then, we had the luxury of not having to call ourselves feminists. One of the women who was there told me that it was the first time in her life that she had to confront her femininity head on.”

Vanasse, who co-produced the film, has wanted to commit the event to celluloid since she was 18; she was instrumental in recruiting Villeneuve, director of the well-regarded Maëlstrom and Next Floor. A full-blown Quebec vedette, Vanasse says she doesn’t know why she was so compelled by the subject. “Part of it was, I was listening to [radio and television host] Marie-France Bazzo on the anniversary, and she said how strange it was that no one had done a real piece of art on what happened.”

Visually, Polytechnique doesn’t treat its subjects nicely. Shot in black and white, it has a washed-out quality that makes Montreal seem ashen and filthy; even fresh snow looks as if it fell from the tip of a lit cigarette. L’École Polytechnique, which must be one of the ugliest buildings ever conceived, might as well be some Duplessis-era sanatorium, all painted brick and humming fluorescent lights.

The inevitable brutality is understated and, though everyone knows it’s coming, jarringly sudden. At one moment a female student is photocopying notes; the next she is wandering around aimlessly, deaf from the gunshot wound to the side of her face. The film makes no attempt at dissecting the shooter, played by Maxim Gaudette, beyond his hatred for women; there are no answers in Polytechnique, only consequences. “You can’t explain Marc Lépine,” Vanasse says. “You can have theories, but it’s only through his actions and his evident sense of isolation that we can understand him.”

The film also takes pains to acknowledge Lépine’s lesser-known victims: those who lived to grieve what they saw. After failing to save the life of one female student, Jean-François kills himself, unable to cope with the thoughts in his head. This is a nod to Sarto Blais, a Polytechnique student who hung himself several months after the tragedy. His parents followed suit.

Vanasse, who consulted most of the victims’ families before and during production, says she is prepared for the inevitable charges of exploitation during the promotion of the film. Canada is not America; grief isn’t so easily projected onto the screen. “I’m not sure why we wait,” she says. “It was our first mass shooting. Maybe it’s a question of guilt.”