Excusing the men who ran away

The new film ‘Polytechnique’ sidesteps the old norm of ‘women and children first’

Excusing the men who ran away

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.

And yet, despite his artfulness, he can’t quite pull it off. He focuses his efforts on two composite students, Valérie (Karine Vanasse) and Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau). They’re sitting next to each other at the back of the class when the killer walks in and barks the two most important words in the movie: “Séparez-vous!” This is the hinge moment in the story, the point that determines whether the killer’s scenario will play out as intended, or whether it will be disrupted: drama turns on choices because choice reveals character. But, when the man with the gun issues his instructions, every single male in the room meekly obeys him and troops out, and we are invited to identify with Jean-François because unlike the rest, who shuffle for the exit as if for a fire drill, he alone glances back and makes momentary eye contact with Valérie. Oh, the humanity!

And then, like everyone else, he leaves the room.

“I wanted to absolve the men,” Villeneuve said. “Society condemned them. People were really tough on them. But they were 20 years old . . . It was as if an alien had landed.”

But it’s always as if an alien had landed. When another Canadian director, James Cameron, filmed Titanic, what most titillated him were the alleged betrayals of convention. It’s supposed to be “women and children first,” but he was obsessed with toffs cutting in line, cowardly men elbowing the womenfolk out of the way and scrambling for the lifeboats, etc. In fact, all the historical evidence is that the evacuation was very orderly. In reality, First Officer William Murdoch threw deck chairs down to passengers drowning in the water to give them something to cling to, and then he went down with the ship—the dull, decent thing, all very British, with no fuss. In Cameron’s movie, Murdoch takes a bribe and murders a third-class passenger. (The director subsequently apologized to the first officer’s hometown in Scotland and offered 5,000 pounds toward a memorial. Gee, thanks.) Pace Cameron, the male passengers gave their lives for the women, and would never have considered doing otherwise. “An alien landed” on the deck of a luxury liner—and men had barely an hour to kiss their wives goodbye, watch them clamber into the lifeboats and sail off without them. The social norm of “women and children first” held up under pressure.

At the École Polytechnique, there was no social norm. And in practical terms it’s easier for a Hollywood opportunist like Cameron to trash the memory of William Murdoch than for a Quebec filmmaker to impose redeeming qualities on a plot where none exist. In Polytechnique, all but one of the “men” walk out of that classroom and out of the story. Only Jean-François acts, after a fashion. He hears the shots . . . and rushes back to save the girl he’s sweet on? No, he does the responsible Canadian thing: he runs down nine miles of windowless corridor to the security man on duty and tells him all hell’s broken loose. So the security guard rushes back to tackle the nut? No, he too does the responsible Canadian thing: he calls the police. More passivity. Polytechnique’s aesthetic is strangely oppressive—not just the “male lead” who can’t lead, but a short film with huge amounts of gunfire yet no adrenalin.

Whenever I write about this issue, I get a lot of emails from guys scoffing, “Oh, right, Steyn. Like you’d be taking a bullet. You’d be pissing your little girlie panties,” etc. Well, maybe I would. But as the Toronto blogger Kathy Shaidle put it:

“When we say ‘we don’t know what we’d do under the same circumstances,’ we make cowardice the default position.”

I prefer the word passivity—a terrible, corrosive, enervating passivity. Even if I’m wetting my panties, it’s better to have the social norm of the Titanic and fail to live up to it than to have the social norm of the Polytechnique and sink with it. M Villeneuve dedicates his film not just to the 14 women who died that day but also to Sarto Blais, a young man at the Polytechnique who hanged himself eight months later. Consciously or not, the director understands what the heart of this story is: not the choice of one man, deformed and freakish, but the choice of all the others, the nice and normal ones. He shows us the men walking out twice—first, in real time, as it were; later, Rashômon-style, from the point of view of the women, in the final moments of their lives.

If M Villeneuve can’t quite face the implications of what he shows us, we at least have an answer to Mme Bazzo’s question: you can’t make art out of such a world. Whether you can even make life out of it for long will be an interesting question for Quebec, Canada and beyond in the years ahead.