Movie based on Montreal massacre stirs controversy

Polytechnique is scheduled to open in Quebec cinemas on Friday, and critics are already weighing in on the film, directed by Quebec's Denis Villeneuve.

A 'necessary film' or a 'disturbing' flop?

Debate is raging in Quebec media over Polytechnique, the film based on the 1989 massacre of 14 women by a crazed gunman at Montreal's École Polytechnique.

Polytechnique is scheduled to open in Quebec cinemas on Friday, and critics are already weighing in on the film, directed by Quebec's Denis Villeneuve. 

"I think it is a terrible, beautiful film," said Nathalie Petrowski, a columnist with La Presse, in an interview Monday with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

"I thought it was 20 years later, I thought I was kind of detached .… This film totally shocked and stunned me. It's very hard to watch, especially coming from Montreal."

Some observers say there is no way of making a film based on the killings, even 20 years later, without opening old wounds.

Others say a new generation of filmgoers should witness this important event in Quebec history.

La Presse gave the film four stars in its Monday edition, saying Polytechnique's biggest strength is that it doesn't try to explain or justify the tragedy.

Petrowski was a big defender of the film even before it was made.

"I think it was a necessary film. You know, we put a lid on this whole event for much too long, and it was time to have a discussion, and when I heard it was Denis Villeneuve as the director, I was relieved, and I knew it was not going to be some cheapo bloody TV movie, but he was going to make real piece of art and that's what he did," she said.

She said the commemorative events held every Dec. 6 remembering the rampage in which gunman Mark Lepine targeted women at the school are no substitute for art, which can be a more "cathartic" response to such a traumatic event.

There have been many books, films and plays dealing with the Sept. 11 attacks, which are more recent, Petrowski said, but the Polytechnique story seemed to be taboo.

Still, she doesn't believe the film will be a commercial success.

"This film, the core of the story is the shooting where you're in there with the victims," Petrowski said. "I think it will be a flop at the box office because people will be scared to go see it."

Few want to relive events

Brendan Kelly, a film critic for the Montreal Gazette, agrees the film will be a flop — because very few Quebecers will want to relive the events of Dec. 6, 1989.

"Of course you can make a film about anything you want to make a film about or write a novel about anything you want to write about, but you've got to have something to say, especially in the case of the Polytechnique," Kelly said.

"It's a dark, dark event in Montreal's history, Canada's history, and you better have a real darn good reason to make that film, and I don't think he [Villeneuve] did."

Villeneuve, who directed a segment of the critically acclaimed film Cosmos and then went to direct Maelstrom and the short film Next Floor, which has been travelling this year on the festival circuit, is considered one of Quebec's promising young directors.

Actress-turned-producer Karine Vanasse was keen to make the film, which cost $6 million.

Kelly believes they have not said anything of note about the Montreal massacre.

"I don't think the film has a point of view; it just recreates the event and throws that back at us," Kelly said.  "Now, Denis Villeneuve is  a very skilled filmmaker. It looks great. There's real tension there, but it has nothing to say and I find that disturbing."

He compared the film to Elephant, Gus Van Sant's fictional recreation of the school shootings at Columbine.

Not very deep

While Elephant is a long examination of what the killers and their victims were doing in the hours before the shooting, and ends with a short segment on the murders, Polytechnique begins with the gunman, who never is given a name, shooting inside the school.

"Villeneuve is saying in his interviews that this represents the fear and rage that's inside all men. I find that's not a very deep point of view," Kelly said.

There may be a film to be made out of the Montreal massacre, but this is not it, he said.

"I agree absolutely that it's important to remember and it's tragic in that it wasn't the first or the last. There's been other school shootings here in Montreal."

But Petrowski said she found the film quite "powerful."

"I think it does have a point of view and the point of view is — first of all, I think he wanted to recreate the terror that existed that day and he does, and his message … is war. He sets up a war zone .… The whole pattern of the film is this rage, this madness that has no purpose, nothing, and it’s a war zone and everybody is a victim," she said.

Polytechnique has its commercial release Friday in both English and French across Canada.