On a snowy day in Montreal, a nameless young man (Maxim Gaudette) wanders about a cramped apartment. He loads a rifle. He drives to his mother’s house and leaves a note in her mailbox. He goes to École Polytechnique, the engineering school where he’s a student. Leaving the rifle in his car, he walks around the school. He stares at the students in the cafeteria, observing them with a hatred that they might not notice but which we’ll never forget. He goes back outside. He sits in his car while the snow continues to fall.
As we watch him, we hear him reading the suicide note that he’s written for the authorities. He talks about his belief that the world has been destroyed by feminists. He writes that he’s offended that he is expected to compete with women and that women have an unfair advantage in both the academic and the professional world. He brags about the good grades that he gets, despite the fact that he rarely attends school. He says that he’s never fit in with the world and that woman are to blame. He complains about women competing at the Olympics, showing that he views everything through the filter of his own misogyny. At one point, he apologizes for not being as eloquent as he believes he could be. He explains that he only had 15 minutes to put down his thoughts.
Inside the school, another engineering student, Jean-Francois (Sébastien Huberdeau ) struggles to complete an assignment before his next class begin. He sits in the cafeteria with open books scattered across the table in front of him. Later, we’ll see Jean-Francois running through the hallways of the school, trying to warn the other students that something terrible is happening. He’ll run to a security officer and ask him to call the police, just to be given a somewhat confused look in response. Later still, we’ll see Jean-Francois outside of the school, visiting his family and haunted by guilt.
One of Jean-Francois’s classmates, Valerie (Karine Vanasse), goes to a job interview where the older male interviewer states that he’s shocked that Valerie wants to go into engineering after graduation. Most women, he says, don’t do that. It’s a profession that requires a lot of hard work and it’s not ideal for someone who wants to start a family. Stunned, Valerie lies and says that she doesn’t have any desire to start a family. Throughout the film, we watch as Valerie stop several times at her locker so that she can switch shoes. When she has to deal with stuff like her job interview, she puts on high heels that are obviously very uncomfortable for her. When she just wants to go to class, she has to stop and switch to shoes that she can actually walk in and, at that moment, I knew exactly what she was feeling. Every woman watching will instantly know what she’s going through. Later, she complains to her friend and roommate, Stephanie (Evelyn Brouchu), about how condescending the interview was. Stephanie tells her not to obsess on it.
Outside, the snow continues to fall in the night, creating a bleakly cold landscape and making Montreal look like a barren and bombed-out wasteland.
Later, we’ll see Jean-Francois arriving late for a class. Valerie and Stephanie are already in the class, listening to the lecture. Not long after Jean-Francois claims his seat, the unnamed man steps into the room, carrying his rifle. He orders the males to gather on one side of the room and the women on the other….
These are the moments and images that stick with you, long after the 2009 Canadian film, Polytechnique, concludes it’s brief 77-minute run time. It’s a haunting film, definitely not one to watch if you’re already feeling depressed. What makes it especially disturbing is that it’s based on a true story. On December 8, 1989, an Algerian-Canadian student opened fire at École Polytechnique in Montreal. (The film does not name the killer and I won’t either, because to name him without naming his victims does a disservice to their memory. Those who really want to know his name are free to look it up on Wikipedia.) As seen in the film, the gunman specifically targeted women and even ordered all of the males in the classroom to leave before he opened fire. Also, as seen in the movie, the men did just that, with not a single one trying to stop the gunman or warn others until they were already out of the classroom. The character of Jean-Francois stands in for all of the men who were haunted by their decision to leave. As I watched the film, I had mixed feelings about the men who left that classroom. Yes, the gunman was armed but there were enough men in that classroom that it’s hard to justify the fact that not a single one attempted to intervene.
Before shooting himself in the head, the gunman killed 14 women and wounded 10 women and 4 men. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history. When the police found his body, they also found a suicide note in his pocket, the same note that we hear read at the beginning of this film. In memory of the lives lost, the anniversary of the massacre has been commemorated as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
Poltytechnique, which is dedicated to those who died, was directed by Denis Villeneuve, long before he would come to America and make a name for himself with films like Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. Polytechnique is filmed in harsh black-and-white and Villeneuve skips around in time, often showing us the consequences of the killer’s actions before showing us the actions themselves. It’s an approach that reminds us that the Montreal Massacre and all other acts of violence are events that will forever haunt us. The past will always cast a shadow over both the present and the future.
As I said, it’s not a happy film but perhaps not every film needs to happy. With Polytechnique, Villeneuve mourns for the lives lost on that day in 1989 and he encourages us all to try to create a better world for the future.